[This review contains some spoilers]
One can scarcely imagine the pressure on Jordan Peele when the time came to begin shooting his sophomore feature film Us following the enormous success of his debut feature. But the film is here now, and while many will inevitably lean towards race-based readings, the film in whole feels too big, too unwieldy, to be about any one thing. If Get Out was a thematic scalpel, Us is a steamroller.
His directorial debut Get Out (2017) was a bona fide cultural phenomenon, smashing box office records, winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and sparking a ferocious online debate about cultural appropriation that scarcely seems to have simmered down since. Get Out wasn’t just a great film, it was deemed an important one, a veritable kiss of death for fledgling artists who must labor the rest of their careers under a presumption of greatness.
The fan reaction to the trailer of Us was expectedly frenzied, where viewers dissected every frame for hints about Peele’s next big statement on race in America: Lupita Nyong’o’s potential otherness within the black community being signaled by snapping out of time to Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It”; Evan Alex’s burned face representing the violent silencing of black bodies; even the central casting of the main family with darker-skinned black performers was heralded as a brave, ground-breaking choice by fans. The general consensus seemed to be that Us would be a similarly devastating racial assessment.
Then something incredible happened in our world of “modern film analysis”. Peele point-blank declared that Us was not, in fact, about race.
It was a film about a black family, yes, but that the film was deliberately made to not be a racial statement, to put to rest all of the internet video essays fervent breakdowns. It was a declarative statement that would push the film’s separation from Get Out‘s reputation. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he explained:
“After you get over the initial realization that you’re watching a black family in [Us], you’re just watching a movie. You’re just watching people. I feel like it proves a very valid and different point than Get Out, which is, not everything is about race.”
The film sees a well-to-do black family menaced by their doppelgängers while vacationing at a beach house in Santa Cruz. The mother, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), is distant the day before as they arrive at the house and relax at the seaside, reliving repressed memories about the time she encountered her double as a child decades before while lost at night in the beach’s funhouse. Her relationships with her cheerful, dad joke-spewing husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her cell phone-obsessed teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are similarly strained, blowing off the good-natured kidding of the first and barely concealing her impatience with the second. It’s only with her son young Jason (Alex), a painfully introverted and socially awkward boy who carries plastic masks around as coping objects, that she lets her inner vulnerability shine, perhaps recognizing the same internal woundedness she’s carried all these years. Their vacation is abruptly cut short that first night as their red jumpsuit-wearing doubles arrive, swiftly overpowering them and drawing each member away under the threat of those looming golden scissors.
So begins several stomach-churning set-pieces where the family must outsmart and overpower each of their murderous doubles, all the while trying to discover who they are and where they came from. Unlike Get Out, which was less a pure horror film than a disturbing thriller, it’s clear Peele ups his game here to truly frighten audiences, or at the very least unsettle them. More often than not, Us relies on jump scares, but most successfully revels in situations of asphyxiating tension.
It’s difficult to discuss what happens after the family successfully fights off their doubles and reunite, not just because of avoiding spoilers but because one of the film’s high points is its masterful sense of escalation as they gradually discover that the scope of their doppelgänger situation is more vast and terrifying than they could have imagined. Suffice to say, yes, the doppelgängers are real, not figments of their imaginations or visitors from an alternate dimension; they’re real flesh-and-blood humans created in their twin’s image.
But this is ultimately where the film falls apart, as Peele bizarrely explains too much, as well too little about the world he’s created and its implications. Peele meticulously describes certain aspects of the doppelgängers’ upbringing and creation: their purpose, their education, even their diet. The work is put in to fully characterize the group who are referred to as “The Tethered”. It’s an effulgence of what’s, where’s, and when’s. But there are scarcely any why’s and even fewer precious how’s. Not that it matters how the clones were made—that’s the realm of sci-fi—but the film doesn’t explain why they seem to have psychic links with their doubles only when it’s plot convenient, why they all chose golden scissors as weapons and where they got them, and why they seem incapable of hurting people other than their twins…except when they choose to.
Here is the fundamental disconnect in Us: it tries unsuccessfully to meld conventional and dream logic, the strict cause-and-effect storytelling of Get Out, and an oneiric atmosphere of impossible coincidences and surreal, outlandish images. Watching it, I was repeatedly reminded of Robert Altman’s avant-garde 3 Women (1977), another California thriller centered on the physical and psychological woundings of female characters. Literally based on one of Altman’s dreams, it’s a surreal mass of psychopathology and monstrous imagery that’s equally as concerned as Us with doubles usurping and replacing each other. But 3 Women never insinuates it could ever exist anywhere other than a plastic, artificial reality where the laws of consciousness and individuality exist in a rejuvenate Jungian ouroboros. But Peele wants us to know that Us is taking place now, in this country (“We’re Americans…”), in a world with Michael Jackson T-shirts, mid-90s Oakland hip-hop, and two-VHS box-sets of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983).
There are other microcosmic issues such as an uninspired, over-assertive soundtrack and a last minute twist that makes less sense the more you think about it (particularly when the opening scene’s POV shots are taken into consideration and we wonder just whose memories they are.) It’s easy to overlook them in the face of the film’s effective scares and the central performances—Nyong’o has been given the brunt of the praise for her performance, but Duke, Joseph, and Alex all do their own considerable emotional heavy-lifting and shouldn’t be overlooked. But the central miscommunication in Peele’s artistic vision cannot elevate Us beyond the level of a well-intentioned misfire.