Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Producer: Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Jordan Peele
Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Madison Curry
An average family questions their own identity when they are terrorized by a dangerous mob of murderous doppelgangers.
The idea of reviewing “Us” daunted me at first. Between its SXSW debut and wide release two weeks later, the movie didn’t just dominate the box office. It dominated the collective popular culture conversation.
Given the zeitgeist fixture of his freshman feature “Get Out” (review here), anything with Jordan Peele’s name attached automatically attracts attention equal to the quadruple threat’s artistry. From mainstream pundits to niche websites, everyone dove deep into the story, subtext, impact, and more surrounding “Us.” Their insights, both authentic and imaginary, placed “Us” on a pedestal to be praised for meaningful messaging cleverly woven into the fabric of B-movie entertainment.
Thousand-word thinkpieces dissected details from diverse perspectives. More erudite editorials mused over metaphors about manifest destiny and privilege-induced suppression while less heady fan theories assigned nuance to recurring Black Flag t-shirts and the number 11. Others posited possible parallels with Norwegian folklore, or connected dots between Jason’s toy ambulance used as a doorstop and the real thing used as a refuge during the finale.
I worried, would I have anything worthy to add? I know that the color red signifies liberation from slavery in Umoja Karamu. But I lack the personal experience necessary to completely connect to arcs involving black identity. Would it be irresponsible to even try cracking the code of racial components, or to risk being flip in response to something so emotionally important for others? Essentially, was I educated enough to comprehend the scope of “Us” in its intellectual entirety?
As I watched the movie, my anxiety over whether or not my own words on the film would be wise enough subsided. Where some saw symbolism, I saw only nerdy nods to throwback horror.
A silent laugh emerged as it occurred to me that perhaps the issue wasn’t me not being up to the dare of digging under unending layers of “Us.” Perhaps chin-strokers were merely overthinking every element of the movie.
Maybe Jordan Peele consciously intended to address some of the theories conjured by “ending explained” essays in the movie’s wake. Maybe he meant to do so unconsciously. Maybe he had no such intentions at all. Maybe Jason wears a “Jaws” t-shirt just because it’s funny to see a kid evoke that imagery on a beach.
With so many “Us” articles already out there, I don’t have to peel back past the surface. Copious critics and columnists have more than fulfilled that duty. Instead, my purpose is to provide assurance that if you don’t see any of the meta-commentary, or choose not to, you’re not alone in thinking that “Us” is just “okay” as a horror film. Because that is a wholly valid way of digesting its content too.
Forced to reduce an opinion to a binary assessment, “Us” unquestionably qualifies as “good.” At times excellent, “Us” at the very least is an entertaining, recommendable film. Rod Serling would grinningly nod in approval over its status as a feature-length take on “Twilight Zone’s” template. “Us” possesses timeless social context, smart writing, superb acting, and a twisty tale that terrifies while taking place in an askew yet frighteningly relatable reality.
Still, overeager swooners putting backs of hands to fainting foreheads while proclaiming “masterpiece” could stand to dial down the hyperventilating hyperbole by two or three notches. Peele’s story of underground-dwelling doppelgangers keeping up with the Joneses by killing them in a nightmarish nationwide revolt is chock full of ideas. However, some of those ideas are unapologetic about their Saturday matinee silliness. Awarding all of them merit above mere monster movie madness would be misguided at best and foolhardy at worst.
Forget endless possibilities for plausible and implausible commentary. One could really become lost trying to go down a rabbit hole regarding the film’s fiction. Carefully considered though the script may be, a mind might go mad wondering if Amazon could deliver millions of gold scissors and billions of yards of red thread to an underground address. The same could be said of concocting explanations for why the funhouse mirror maze changes names from “Vision Quest” to “Sherwood Forest.”
Naturally of course, “Us” isn’t set up to be accepted as starkly serious, which is why it would be ill-advised to get hung up on head-scratching conundrums. Not unexpectedly in light of his background, Jordan Peele expertly injects comedy at opportune moments. Occasional jokes put “Us” in a pleasing place where its “unrealness” doesn’t read as too phony while permitting the Wilson Family to remain endearing. This is a dark fairy tale, vaguely EC Comics-ish in conception, and Peele wants it to appear accessibly four-color in texture.
A little laughter goes a long way in a fright film though. Having Tim Heidecker ham it up in dual roles, especially in one meant to be murderously menacing, saps too much of the scare factor. Even with his sure hand, Peele is prone to indulgent performances that aren’t always best for maintaining mood.
Since “Us” has been broken down at length by everyone and their brothers, I don’t see the value in elaborating further in order to shout another echo into that hole of hullaballoo. I’d rather reiterate my original assertion that taken strictly as a midnight movie, “Us” is satisfying horror entertainment. That’s the extent of the vein it taps for me and probably for many others. To the like-minded, I offer the following reminder: It’s perfectly acceptable to sidestep a struggle to shoehorn themes that may or may not fit with the film. It’s fine to simply say, “’Us’ is just okay.”
Review Score: 75