Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
After a successful run in sketch comedy, Jordan Peele turned to filmmaking and hit a home run right out of the gate. 2017’s Get Out was a surprise smash hit and earned Peele an Oscar win for best original screenplay, as well as nominations for best picture and director. He wasted little time working on a follow-up and returns to theaters almost exactly two years after Get Out’s release with the horror thriller Us. It proves to be a worthy follow-up and a truly unique horror thriller that is sure to give audiences plenty to theorize about over the coming months.
The movie follows a family of four on their vacation to the beach town of Santa Cruz, California. The visit takes a frightening turn when a family of doppelgangers invades their home and holds them hostage. The doppelgangers all dress in red coveralls and carry golden scissors, while preaching about what they call the “untethering.” The message in this horrifying encounter is clear: we are our own worst enemy. From there the movie goes in some unexpected directions, revealing a truth hiding right underneath our feet, and threatening a most unique apocalypse.
“What just happened?” is a question heard consistently outside early screenings of the movie and that is exactly how Jordan Peele would prefer it. He has said in interviews that he wants this movie to be one that people discuss and question and theorize about. He wants everyone in the audience to get out of it what they put in. A cinematic Rorschach test, as it were. But the movie also works as a straight-forward horror thriller. You can watch the movie without trying to dig deep into the meaning of it all and simply enjoy it for the thrill ride that it is.
The adult leads in the film are played by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, both fresh off last year’s smash hit Black Panther. Duke provides much of the movie’s comic relief, a job he excels at, while never breaking his character outside the film’s horrifying tone. But Nyong’o is the star and it is rather shocking that this is the first movie in which she gets to play the definitive lead. The incredibly charismatic, Oscar-winning actress really gets to shine here, not just as the movie’s hero, but also its villain. She is great as both of her doppelgangers, but it is her villainous turn that steals the spotlight. To put her performance in perspective, imagine if Anthony Hopkins or Jodie Foster would have played both the cannibalistic psychiatrist and the FBI trainee in The Silence of the Lambs. That is what you are getting from Nyong’o here and her creepy laugh is every bit as terrifying as Hopkins’ Chianti lisp.
The younger actors are also tasked with playing both the heroic and the villainous sides of their characters and they are every bit as up to the task as their adult counterparts. Shahadi Wright Joseph becomes especially terrifying when her shadow doppelganger stares down the audience with her wide, unblinking eyes.
To try and delve too deep into the movie’s themes, references, and hidden details would be a fool’s errand after only one viewing, but Us does make the idea of revisiting it sound like a fun chore. But the fact that so many things are seeming to be going on all in once in Us is possibly one of its biggest deficits, too. Unlike Get Out¸ which did have its fair share of hidden details to discover on repeated viewings, but nevertheless maintained its same theme from start to finish, Us has so many possible themes that it can lead the audience too far down its rabbit hole.
There are many moments in Us where it is clear that Jordan Peele has become an even more skilled filmmaker the second time around. This is most clear in the movie’s definite visual style. One early shot that I found especially fascinating was a high-angle on the family walking along the beach, their shadows trudging along beside them in the sand. It is a clear anticipation of what is to come. But there are other moments in Us that feel less assured than Peele’s work in Get Out. There are strange edits, especially in the second half of the film, which become confusing distractions. For example, we cut from one scene of the family driving in the dark to one of them driving in daylight. This suggests that they have driven a long way, so it is somewhat surprising when the film reveals that they are still near the Santa Cruz boardwalk.
But these perplexing editing decisions are minor quibbles in an otherwise skillfully made and thoroughly engrossing horror film. It is also possible that the reason for these decisions might be one of the things made clear with repeated viewings. Whether Us lives up to the financial and critical success of its predecessor remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Jordan Peele is a filmmaker whose movies we will likely be rabidly discussing and breaking down for years to come.
Us opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.