Us (2019) Review
THE TIES THAT BIND US
Over the past several years, Jordan Peele has definitely been making a name for himself on both the big and small screen. While he started in small roles on shows like MADtv, Childrens Hospital, and Fargo, Peele gained some notoriety when he started on the sketch comedy TV show Key & Peele, which aired on the channel Comedy Central. Running for five seasons, the show gained the comedic pairing of Peele (and actor Keegan-Michael Key), which eventually leading them to making a comedic feature film titled Keanu in 2016; a film that received mixed reviews, but praised Key and Peel’s witty banter / on-screen chemistry. In 2017, Peele made the jump from actor to motion picture director, directing his first film with the movie Get Out, a suspenseful / horror movie of an African American man (played by actor Daniel Kaluuya) who uncovers a dark / disturbing secret when he meets the family of his white girlfriend. Surprisingly, Peele’s Get Out was met with critical praise from critics and moviegoers, with many praising the feature’s story, script, and satire / social commentary message. Furthermore, Get Out, which was made for only $4.5 million, cultivated over $250 million at the box office and also celebrated several award nominations during the award season, including winning Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Now, two years after the release of Get Out, actor / director Jordan Peele (and Universal Pictures) releases his second directorial feature film with the movie titled Us. Is Peele’s sophomore film worth the hype or is it just mediocre one?
Escaping their busy lives and looking for a little / well-deserved vacation, the Wilson family, which includes Gabe (Winston Duke), his wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), making their “getaway” at Adelaide’s childhood home. Visiting the nearby beach community of Santa Cruz for some “fun in the sun”, the Wilson family settles in, but Adelaide remains on edge, sensing something wrong with the destination. In truth, she is haunted by past memories of her childhood (circa 1986), when she was separated from her parents, finding her way into a spooky fun house. Disturbed by the resurfaced moments from her past, Adelaide seeks to leave, only find the way out blocked one night by a family of identical doppelgangers or rather “tethered” versions of themselves, with Red (Nyong’o), Abraham (Duke), Umbrae (Joseph), and Pluto (Alex), who appear on their doorstep. This sudden appearance of these “look alikes” sets in motion a night of survival in the community, unraveling the events that have led up to this moment as the Wilson family faces these “tethered” doppelgangers and learn of the horrifying secrets that their mirrored selves desire.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Like I said in the opening paragraph, Jordan Peele has definitely made a name for himself these past few years. Personally, I remember seeing a few episodes of Key & Peele a couple of times; finding the pair’s overall chemistry great and how they produced laughs. Then I saw Keanu and, while I didn’t review the movie (my bad), I thought it had a few laughs within a somewhat mediocre motion picture. I kind of find it interesting that Key decided to purse more of acting career (appearing in more supporting roles in movies), while Peele decided to try his hand in directing. Of course, I’m talking about his movie Get Out, which (like I mentioned above) garnished quite a lot of positive reviews from both critics and viewers alike. I did miss seeing this movie in theaters, but I did rent it when it was released on home release. However, while a great majority loved it, I thought it was good, but nothing really spectacular. I’m not knocking Peele’s directing ability, which was really good for a first-timer of a full-length motion picture, as well as the cast and the social commentary message that was presented, but I just felt the film was a little bit overhyped and was a complete masterpiece has some were making it out to be. Regardless of why I thought, however, Get Out was definitely a big hit with its viewers and definitely made a statement with Peele’s directing ability.
This, of course, brings me back to talking about the film Us, Jordan Peel’s sophomore directorial feature film. Given the amount of success of critical acclaim from both critics and moviegoers, Peele was poised to direct a second feature film sometime after the release of Get Out, with many eagerly waiting this project. Within time, the internet rumor mill started to churn as plenty of “buzz” surrounding Peele’s newest project (i.e. Us); giving the necessary inherit hype to the feature before even getting released. Of course, when the film’s movie trailer for Us came out, it definitely reconfirmed that notion. As I said, I liked Get Out, but wasn’t super thrilled with like many out there. That being said, I was kind of curious to see how Peele’s Us would turn out to be…. another big hit or a just a mediocre fluke? So, I decided to see during its opening weekend; curious to see if Peele could pull off another big win with his sophomore film. Well, what did I think of it? To be truthful, I liked it more than I did Get Out. While there were few minor problems with the movie, Us is definitely a great endeavor on Peele’s part; showcasing plenty of ideals within a feature film that proves to be fun, creepy, and entertaining. It’s not a true masterpiece, but it shows that Peele’s directorial sense of cinematic storytelling and craftmanship has evolved in his second directed motion picture.
As to be expected, Peele returns to the director’s chair for Us as well as handling the film’s script; proving that the actor turned director is capable of handling the “double duty” role behind the scenes. As mentioned, its clearly (from the get-go) that Peele’s directorial handling has greatly improved from Get Out, making Us a more improved / refined feature film, with Peele’s ability greatly more enhanced. To be quite honest, Peele, given the fact that he is rebooting The Twilight Zone tv shows, makes Us feel like an episode from the strange / bizarre show. What do I mean? Well, Us has that particular nuances and narrative aspect that draw similar attributes…. kind of like “what if” scenario appeal (considering the “tethered” doppelgangers of people). It’s a cool idea and, while it’s not exactly the most original idea to come from a narrative adaptation (be it movie, TV show, or book, etc.), Peele makes it in way that finds its appeal / engaging to watch. This plays an instrumental part of Us’s narrative, especially considering how many other horror movies of late have found the standard plot / story to be conventional for the genre (i.e. possession, demonic spirit, serial killer, etc.).
Coinciding with Peele’s directing ability, the actor / director definitely has keen sense of building up tension, which is a crucial element in horror features. Thankfully, Peele seems adept in that knowledge, providing enough tension / suspense to keep us (the viewers) invested in Us’s story from beginning to end. As for the horror aspect movie, there is plenty horrific moments in Us, but Peele (thankfully) doesn’t go “over the top” with them, keeping them a bit more grounded than some other horror films of late. However, that doesn’t mean that the horror nuances he uses aren’t effective; making Us definitely a creepy film to watch as the tale unfolds, especially a few scenes that will make you “squirm” over. While the movie doesn’t have a pronounce social commentary message like Get Out had, Peele does offer Us a classic idealistic look (both physically and mentally) of a person battling themselves. This can be extrapolated in the fight against the “tethered” doppelganger individuals as well as battlefield of the mind (as seen in the case of Adelaide’s struggling past trauma and her further connection to her doppelganger…Red, who is seeing as the leader of the “tethered” quartet). There’s a sense of duality to it all and Peele certainly does utilize that knowledge when crafting the feature, highlighting some specific moments that call upon the aspect.
Additionally, Peele weaves some subtle thematic elements / messages within this suspenseful horror tale, including post trauma (the lasting effect it has on a person), fragile / fracture mindset, social identities (i.e. privilege versus non privilege), and the common practice of a “nuclear” family unit. While some of these nuances aren’t quite the “main attraction” of Us, it’s still a wholesome endeavor to the narrative screenplay of the feature, which deserves some praise from Peele’s creditability rather than just making a straight forward horror slasher movie.
In terms of presentation, Us is a well-crafted. The movie does have a more grounded setting that other supernatural background setting (again…. the movie isn’t a supernatural horror endeavor), but that doesn’t mean the scenery / setting for the narrative plays a part of the film’s story. Thus, the overall feel of Us has a sort of “one foot” in reality and the other in a surreal cinematic suspenseful horror world. This is made realized by the efforts made up those “behind the scenes” filmmaking team that Peele has assembled, including the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, the art direction by Cara Brower, and production designs by Ruth De Jong. Lastly, the film’s scored, which was composed by Get Out’s Michael Abels, proves to have an effective musical undertone for Us, including a very spooky chorus chant / singing as well as pieces of unsettling orchestral flourishes of which definitely add in the feature’s overall “creepiness” and tension build-up.
However, like all movies out there, no feature film can go unscathed from drawbacks and criticism and while Peel’s efforts are solid, Us does a few film (at least to me) that hold the movie back from true cinematic greatness. Perhaps my major complaint is that the feature’s main narrative gets a little messy as events keep happening. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the story gets terrible as it remains quite engaging throughout, but the back half of the film (most notable towards the third act) gets a little bit heavily handed in how it handles itself. What do I mean? Well, much like the movie A Quiet Place (another successful and critically acclaim suspenseful horror movie), Us never fully explains certain narrative plot points / device fully. Without spoiling it, Peele gives the immediate story of the film a sort send-off for a conclusion, but there seems to a larger story at play that doesn’t seem to wrap up. This, of course, leads to a possible continuation (i.e. an Us 2) somewhere down the line…. some shape or form…or just simply an ambiguous ending to the narrative. In both cases, it just leaves it all a bit open ended, which can be frustrating to some. Likewise, the handling of some of the big plot twist / reveal moments during the third act come across messy as well, with some vague attempts to explain certain things. To me, there’s one big question that doesn’t get explained and leaves me scratching my head over it (as I’m sure it will for most viewers out there). It’s not a super big deal, but it something that certainly does bother me a bit. Perhaps maybe Peele could’ve used some help in the script handling department? It’s possibility.
Lastly, as a very minor complaint about the movie, I would say that the overall inherit hype for Us doesn’t match what’s actually presented. I’m not saying that the film is bad as it’s quite good and Peele certainly does deliver a terrific film, but I wouldn’t go as far as to saying that it’s a spectacular masterpiece. Peele gets more right than wrong in his sophomore directed movie, but there’s a lot to process and understand more so in this movie than in Get Out. As mentioned above, there definitely a lot of ambiguousness that isn’t fully explained, which does add to the complexity / head scratching aspect of the feature. Again, I’m not saying that isn’t a bad thing, but its definitely one that sticks out when viewing the film. Thus, despite all that, Us isn’t as perfect masterpiece, but its still a solid one that will surely please many out there. However, the movie critic in me can’t overlook the somewhat messy story handling that hampers the film.
Looking past those particular criticism remarks, the cast in Us in a small but effective one; casting some fine actors and actresses (some recognizable from previous projects) to play the film’s various characters. Naturally, the quartet that makes up the Wilson family are the feature’s primary characters that the movie follows; finding each one of them compelling and interesting to watch on-screen. At the head of the pack (and probably considered to be the main lead character of Us) is the character of Adelaide Wilson, the matriarch of the Wilson family, who is played by actress Lupita Nyong’o. Known for her roles in 12 Years a Slave, The Jungle Book, and Black Panther, Nyong’o is definitely the driving force of Us, making Adelaide well-rounded as both a strong character as well as a fragile one, who deals with her personal trauma during her childhood. The movie devotes a lot of time to understanding those particular moments (via flashback sequences), which are place throughout the film, and lend credence to the story that’s unfolding in the present. Nyong’o certainly takes command whenever she’s on screen (whether she’s Adelaide or her “tethered” doppelganger form known as Red) certainly does allow the Oscar-winning actress to showcases her acting talents in the horror genre. In a nutshell, Nyong’o’s performance in Us is fantastic and is definitely the most developed character of the entire feature.
Behind her is actor Winston Duke, who plays the patriarch of the Wilson family Gabe Wilson. While Duke has performed in others projects (i.e. Person of Interests, The Messengers, and Modern Family), many moviegoers out there will know of the actor from his break-out appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War) as the Wakandan Jabari leader M’Baku; bringing a sense of toughness as well as a splash humor to the role. In Us, Duke definitely gets to put on that humorous charm once again as he plays Gabe with a loveable goofiness to him that’s wrap up in the classic dad persona (including corny one-liners). That being said, he still plays a vital part in the movie and definitely is a great character in bringing levity to this otherwise dreary / creepy horror feature. Personally, while Nyong’o is the beating heart of the movie, Duke’s Gabe is my personal favorite character of Us.
Rounding out the Wilson family are the characters of Zora and Jason Wilson, the children of Adelaide and Gabe, who are played by actress Shahadi Wright Joseph (The Lion King and Hairspray Live!) and actor Evan Alex (Mani and Kidding) as Zora and Jason Wilson respectfully. Much like their parents, Zora and Jason make up the younger family unit of the Wilsons; finding each one to have a distinct personality as well as own personal dilemmas that happen to them throughout the course of the movie. Likewise, the talents of Joseph and Alex do definitely help in bring these characters in the movie and are not just innocent youth bystanders as they too help and fight alongside their parents in dealing with these mirrored doppelganger members of their family.
What’s more interesting about these four-primary characters of Us is not only that they do some great acting in their respective characters, but also play their “tethered” doppelganger of themselves (i.e. Red, Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto). It’s a “double duty” for actor to do so all four pull it off beautifully, with each one given a hauntingly creepy performance in these mirrored “tethered” versions of their characters.
The rest of the cast are in more supporting roles, which includes actor Tim Heidecker (Decker and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job) as a friend of Wilson family Josh Tyler, actress Elizabeth Moss (Girl, Interrupted and The Handmaid’s Tale) as Josh’s wife, twin actresses Cali and Noelle Sheldon (Friends and Life) as Josh and Kitty’s teenage daughters Becca and Lindsey Tyler, and actress Ana Diop (Titans and 24: Legacy) and actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (The Greatest Showman and Aquaman) play Adelaide’s parents Rayne and Russel Thomas. These selective characters do get their moments to shine when on-screen through various theatrical outlets of which the scene calls for. In the case of Us, these moments are to bolster the character build of Adelaide or into the narrative. Thus, while these characters don’t have particularly strong builds to themselves or any heightened well-rounded developments, they are interesting and well-acted for their respective sum parts of the film. Just remember that Us is a horror feature….and you’ll know what I mean by that and how some of these characters factor into the tethering doppelganger narrative.
While on vacation, the Wilson family encounters a strange turn of events of doppelgangers of themselves; discovering a dire sense of “life or death” survival and nightmarish understanding of these mirrored duplicates in the movie Us. Jordan Peele’s second directorial film is definitely something intriguing and worth celebrating; delivering not just a rehash clone of his Get Out premise, but rather something quite unique that’s creepy, engrossing, and (yes) even a little bit humorous. While the movie does have a few problems in handling its back end of the story, the overall feature is quite entertaining with a lot of effort from Peele’s work behind the scenes as well as the solid cast, especially Nyong’o and Duke. To me, I thought it was pretty good. While it wasn’t exactly my personal favorite horror movie (and it was slightly overhyped), I still think that Peele’s efforts in shaping this feature film are quite and good; keeping me invested and entertained by his sophomore movie. Personally, I liked it more than Get Out. Thus, my recommendation for Us is a favorable “recommended” as its something worth seeing (at least once) in either the movie theaters (while it’s still playing during its theatrical run) or when it gets released on home release later on. In an age of “one and done” directors and befuddled / fluke motion pictures, Jordan Peel’s Us is definitely one that really takes the cake….in a good way; showcasing the actor / director’s talents and proving that Peele’s second outing as a director is not a “one-time fluke”. Here’s to hoping we see more from Peele’s directorial works on the horizon….
4.2 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: March 22nd, 2019
Reviewed On: April 5th, 2019
Us is 116 minutes and is rated R for violence / terror, and language