BY KIRAN PENMAN ’19
From director Jordan Peele’s growing body of work, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there is no better choice for the voice of the new CBS “Twilight Zone” series. Peele’s first film, “Get Out,” demonstrated that he is a master at crafting tales of horror and intrigue. “Get Out” was achieved with undeniable cleverness; there’s a kind of art to the way he weaves his films’ plot together, where everything seems to have a setup and a payoff. Peele takes great care with detail, a fact which is equally clear in his latest film “Us,” which follows the story of a family on vacation who are confronted by their own doppelgangers
Once again, this film brings to life a seemingly bizarre — and potentially almost B-movie-esque — concept into something grounded and sophisticated, although perhaps in a way that is not quite as succinct as in his directorial debut. While it’s unfair to compare “Us” to “Get Out,” it’s hard to avoid doing so. The latter had so much significance and impact, winning multiple NAACP Image awards for writing, directing and acting, that “Us” becomes burdened with incredibly high expectations. Ultimately, although “Us” is a massively entertaining, frightening and well-made horror film, it is considerably less focused than “Get Out,” its predecessor.
That’s not to say that “Us” does not still impress. One standout feature is Lupita Nyong’o’s (“Black Panther”) extraordinary lead performance. Nyong’o is tasked with the portrayal of both the film’s main character, Adelaide, and the antagonist, Red. She entirely transforms for both roles; she’s captivating as the strong-willed and increasingly unhinged Adelaide Wilson and simultaneously terrifying as Red, her doppelganger. To inhabit Red, Nyong’o summons elements of the monstrous, entirely shifting her facial expression, movement and, controversially, her voice. Nyong’o stated that Red’s voice was inspired by a larynx disorder, and was subsequently criticized for imitating those with the disability. While her vocal performance is incredibly powerful, it is disheartening to see a film use a disability to evoke horror — as is so common in the genre — Nyong’o has since apologized for this aspect of her decision.
Still, Nyong’o’s talent is indisputable and is accompanied by great performances from the entire cast. Together, Nyong’o, Winston Duke (“Black Panther”), Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex form a tight-knit and believable family unit. Their interactions are incredibly natural, and it’s rare to have a family at the center of a horror film who are as compelling and likeable as the Wilsons. They also offer some strong comedic moments, as do Elisabeth Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Tim Heidecker (“Bridesmaids”), who play their family friends of the Wilsons. However, the film sometimes falters tonally in its attempts to balance its comedic elements with horror.
There’s also something to be said of the film’s visual style — another rarity among most modern mainstream horror — as it’s clear that great care was taken with both cinematography and with the use of iconography. The red jumpsuit, scissors and glove combination is already widely recognizable and will likely be a popular costume choice for many Halloweens to come.
The film’s score by Michael Abels is equally effective, featuring a suspenseful orchestrated version of LUNIZ’ “I Got 5 On It,” which is clever, chilling and perfect for the trailer. However, the song’s eventual appearance at the climax of the film ends up making little sense contextually as a leitmotif. It becomes another one of “Us”’s setups with a weak payoff; one of many, as the internet has become rife with fervent analysis, theories and speculation of the film’s more confusing elements or even outright plot holes.
Viewers could spend a good while listing all the things that don’t make sense within the plot, and that list only doubles when you consider the film’s final reveal. This in-depth criticism could easily be labeled obnoxious nit-picking. But this kind of nit-picking is encouraged by how much lore “Us” tries to establish. It often goes overboard in its explanations; the climax of the film features a borderline ridiculous monologue from Red, where she reveals to Adelaide — and the audience — most of the film’s plot. It’s pretty jarring. Peele’s gift for visual and focused storytelling is so prominent that when the film does resort to less sophisticated overexplanation, it can be a little disappointing.
In hindsight, the decision to overcomplicate the story with world-building seems like a mistake, as many of the film’s plot-holes would have been solved by allowing it to remain more abstract and metaphorical. Regardless, the film is accomplished in many of its more subtle elements, like its social commentary. “Get Out” received widespread acclaim for its nuanced approach to issues of racism in the U.S. While the social commentary is less overt in “Us”— Peele himself has stated that the film is not about race –— it is easy to find a critique on class structure embedded throughout the film. Peele says the film is about fear of “the other” and the “mysterious invader” but that ultimately, “maybe the evil was us.” “Us” also fulfills the wish Peele said he had as a child, of having a black family at the centre of a horror film. This concept speaks to a distinct lack of this kind of representation in the genre. The demographic of the cast is refreshing and truly feels like an exciting move forward.
Overall, the idea behind “Us” is instantly compelling and whilst a little shaky in its execution, Peele’s sophomore effort remains a thrilling and intriguing ride from start to finish, leaving audiences excited for what he’ll come up with next.