‘Us’ is an accomplishment, if not a huge step forward for Peele
It’s fitting that Jordan Peele, whose reimagining of “The Twilight Zone” will premiere this April, crafted his follow-up to cultural juggernaut “Get Out” by making essentially extended version of a “Twilight Zone” episode. His latest feature film, “Us,” is a tightly wound horror-thriller much in the same vein as “Get Out,” but rather than being grounded in the answers it provides, the power of “Us” comes in the questions it leaves lingering in its wake.
The story surrounds the four members of the Wilson family as they are confronted by dopplegangers of themselves during a pleasant Summer vacation to Santa Cruz beach. To reveal any more of the plot beyond this would be to take away from the twist-riddled, reflective and thought-provoking experience of the movie. It’s practically impossible to talk about the big ideas “Us” posits without spoiling the fun, so I’ll avoid them for the most part.
By far, my favorite aspect of the film was Lupita Nyong’o’s (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) performance as Adelaide Wilson. Since the film revolves around duplicates, she must play both herself and her sadistic, wide-eyed double, Red. As a result, Nyong’o has to be both protective and malevolent, frightened and robotic, along with several other notable dualities. Her ability to carry off what is basically twice the burden of what a normal role entails is purely astounding. Without her, the movie probably wouldn’t work. Winston Duke (“Black Panther”), on the other hand, was the film’s comic relief as Gabe, Adelaide’s husband. Throughout the film his corny presence gave “Us” an initial levity. More importantly, when the horror setpieces began, his one-liners didn’t take away from the tension at hand.
“Get Out” boasted notably ominous camerawork and cinematography, and “Us” demonstrates Peele honing these skills. Peele constructs nearly every frame with visually arresting and symbolism-drenched composition. The embryonic suggestions of his ideas manifest with the right amount of subtlety, so that when they finally reveal themselves, it feels like we have been thinking about them all along. Without getting too specific, a hint I have for those who haven’t seen the movie: Pay attention to what everyone is wearing.
Of course, as a self-proclaimed horror nerd, Peele references several of the works that influenced him, from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to “The Shining” to the obscure sci-fi flick “C.H.U.D.” To see and understand these mini love-letters to horror films of the past was invigorating to me, but Peele does far more than repurpose style. It would be presumptuous to say that Peele has comprehensively realized a style of his own, but one is certainly emerging. His camera placement is uniquely conducive to effective jumpscares, and he peppers them into the narrative at an impressively measured pace. He also has an obsession for totems of his own mythology, from the tea cup in “Get Out” to the creepy white rabbits and golden scissors that were centerpieces in marketing campaign of “Us.”
Michael Abels, composer of the music for “Get Out,” outdid himself with his second film score. Many have heard his ominously groovy remix of “I Got 5 On It” from the trailers, but a larger standout from the film is “Anthem,” a primal, crescendoing, war-chant that is sure to induce nightmares. Abels demonstrates a knack for weaving in impactful leitmotifs into otherwise dissonant horror sounds, going for melody where other composers wouldn’t dare.
In all honesty, even though I adored so many aspects of the film, I didn’t love it. Again, it’s impossible to be specific as to what thematic elements were tough to internalize without ruining the entire movie, so I’ll say this: You have to see “Us” for yourself. I can’t understate how important it is to see the film in theaters, too. In my viewing, the crowd was utterly cacophonous, crying, laughing, screaming and muttering hysterically. Few theater experiences are this collectively engaging.
“Us” might be a more interesting movie to think about than it is to see. There are details of the script that, in reflection, have made me rethink about every aspect of what I saw, and I’m still formulating an understanding of the ending. Beyond my confusion and my doubt, I’m glad “Us” exists and that Jordan Peele is making horror movies. He clearly wants to tackle American issues by reframing them and inciting discussion about about them. And that discussion, in and of itself, is a gift.
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State Theatre, Ann Arbor 20 + IMAX, Goodrich Quality 16