Jordan Peele’s Us Works Until It Doesn’t – Review #31.1

In the center of the opening shot of Jordan Peele’s second feature, Us, is a CRT TV. A clearly current commercial about the 1986 Hands Across America charity event plays, then one about the Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk. Cut to: a carnival.

Years of making basic associations led me to the conclusion that we were in 1986 Santa Cruz. And just as I started to feel good about having understood this obvious transition, and the film trusting me to have understood said transition, a location title showed up on screen: 1986, Santa Cruz.

I audibly groaned.

Hello and welcome to The Week I Review. My name is An American, and today I’m splitting up my duties in order to properly talk about Jordan Peele’s following up to his smash-hit Get Out. This video that you’re watching right now is a review – and a spoiler-free one at that. Regular viewers may notice that it’s atypically short for this channel; that’s because I’m also posting a second video: a deeper dive that grapples with the things that Us is saying and also wants to say. Anyone can watch this one; only those who have seen it through should watch that one.

So. Us.

The only thing I knew going in was what I heard from the theatrical trailer, during which I was able to close my eyes but not my ears: there is a family, and then another family that looks just like that family shows up to, like, Funny Games them or something. That’s not necessarily wrong, though it’s certainly incomplete. But I’m glad that I looked away when the trailers came on, because the images that accompanied that bit of explanatory dialogue contained a shocking amount of very-late-in-the-film footage. In fact, there’s less in the trailer from Us’s first twenty minutes than there is from its last.

Plus, the way the trailer’s cut together just doesn’t do a great job of conveying what Us really is. I went in expecting a straight-up horror film, as did my two movie-going companions. The woman who would have been our fourth decided not to come, because it seemed too scary.

But I knew something was off from the spread of trailers that played before the film. I actually commented out loud about this at the time; you can learn a lot about what theaters expect a film’s audience to be based on the associated marketing. A typical horror movie shows trailers for horror movies, possibly some sci-fi/action stuff too.

But not Us. Sure, there were three of those: Pet Sematary, Midsommar, and Ma, but the others went in some radically different directions: Olivia Wilde’s coming-of-age comedy Booksmart. That movie about a KKK member becoming friends with a black activist. The Natalie Portman-led space drama Lucy in the Sky. The teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

This points to a genuine confusion on the part of the person selecting trailers for who exactly Us is for. And it led me to recalibrate a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t going to be really scary after all. And… I was right. As it turns out, the trailer actually has more jump scares than the movie does. There is only one big NOISE-AND-MOVEMENT-EVENT in the entirety of Us, which is the exact number that I’m okay with. Instead, the film prefers quieter, more unnerving moments. And it is *much* more effective for that.

But it’s also really funny – in a more consistent way than its predecessor. Get Out’s incredible opening shot blended both horror and comedy in just a tour-de-force introduction to Peele as a filmmaker, but after that the tone becomes segmented: When Lil Rel Howery’s Rod is onscreen, it’s comedy; when he’s not, it’s drama.

Us makes good on the promise of Get Out’s opening by integrating comedy into the horror. Rather than having a single comic relief as the B-Plot, the Wilson family itself is funny, cracking jokes even as awful things are happening. Much more often than not, the jokes land, and even when they didn’t I deeply respected the commitment to threading humor so deeply into such a dark narrative.

Which is to say that Us is bolder and more confident than Get Out – an already bold and confident movie. And that permeates the film, particularly in its visuals, which are an absolute treat. Get Out’s aesthetic worked for its story, but Us is so much more… alive. Camera, lighting, production design, costuming – everything is so on point. I loved every frame.

But I’m conflicted, because the film takes a turn that I think doesn’t work on the terms that it has set out for itself with its revelations about the nature of the doppelgangers. The metaphorical meaning is clear and powerful… but if you try to take basically anything from the last, like, fifteen minutes literally, you’re just going to give yourself a migraine.

And it’s particularly frustrating because I feel like I had a handle on things the whole film. I got the call backs, figured out the set ups, and was thoroughly satisfied by the pay-offs. Even those revelations themselves are set up in ways that answer questions I had had within the film. And yet I still felt cheated – like it was actively hiding things from me just so it could get a “!!!” before the rapid turn to “???”

And it made me mad. Because this movie should be better than that. And so I’ve half-convinced myself that it is better than that, resulting in me spending most waking minutes – and some sleeping, if my nightmares are to be believed – between then and now trying to explain it to myself, to convince myself that I’m being dumb and not the movie. Because I want that to be the case. I just… don’t think it is. The best I can hope for, then, is that on subsequent watches, I’ll just be okay with it. That happened with Get Out, actually, which I also felt overextended itself with some of the sci-fi elements… but maybe I won’t.

So what am I supposed to say? On so many levels, Us is a triumph, yet it left a bad taste in my mouth. So I can’t love it the way I feel I should…

But I can still like it a heckuva lot. And that I definitely do.

Seven Point Nine out of Ten

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