Us (2019)

Directed by Jordan Peele

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I want to have strong opinions on this movie, and I suppose I do, a lot of people do, and while some of those feelings are conflicted, all I can honestly say is that I have a lot of thoughts about this movie, a lot of ideas, complaints and questions that I want to write down so I don’t forget.  So with that in mind it’s safe to say that I found Us to be a very engaging experience.

It’s a horror movie that’s not quite so scary and that, like Get Out, has something to say, a point to be made about America.  It’s never more clear than when one character, an antagonist with unknown origins, is asked who she is and replies, “We’re Americans.”

She is one of a family of four doppelgängers who show up with sinister intentions in the middle of the night to terrorize the Wilson family.  They are parents Adelaide and Gabe (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke) and children Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) and they’ve come back to Santa Cruz for a summer getaway, as they do every year.

It’s also in Santa Cruz, right there on the beach boardwalk that Adelaide once had a traumatic experience as a child in 1986 when in a funhouse mirror room she saw herself, not her reflection but her.

This memory and subsequent moments from her childhood will be teased throughout the film, and they of course will connect to the sudden appearance of the doppelgängers outside their home.

Now, there’s a lot here to unpack, both literally within the story and metaphorically.  Taking it literally I had trouble connecting the dots and identifying the logic of this world and these characters.  Adelaide’s double will perform two long monologues, one soon after she is introduced, that explain where they come from and what they want.  It’s when we get that “we’re Americans” line and it feels much too on the nose.  It’s a slow moment at the end of a previously tense sequence which, because it simply led to a living room sit-down, felt rather anticlimactic.

Or maybe it’s just that in a horror movie we’re not looking to watch a group of people sit down and talk to each other, at least not this early in the film.

Along those lines, while horror movies often require a huge suspension of disbelief because of the absurdities of many such premises, there is a similar suspension of disbelief required to watch people just sit and listen to each other.  I found the set up to be tense enough, certainly a spectacle of sorts, but then to have them just sit there, well now I’m just beating a dead horse.

There are so many wonderful moments in Us, both moments of tension and comedy, and like with Get Out Jordan Peele does a good job balancing the two.  So much of the film feels inspired and alive, but it staggers a little as we transition from one sequence or set piece to another.  When, in a given scene, we are given the hero and the antagonist and we understand the challenges, it’s all very effective.  Just the visceral nature of the film, the clear objectives and dangers, it’s perfect.

But the film insists on making a statement about America, and while I find the symbolism of the statement effective (relating to where the doppelgängers come from, how they behave to some degree, etc.), as specific plot points it seems to miss the mark.  In fact the third act just seemed to drag and drag, suffering from strange character behavior, possible plot holes and a certain lack of… well I guess logic.  It felt like we were watching the same climax unfold as we’ve seen in so many movies, with the nuance erased so we could hit the beats we’re familiar with.

And then there’s a twist at the end which helps reframe some of the rest of the story and certainly justifies some of the character behavior that I had previously felt was unmotivated or incoherent.  And I don’t know what to make of it, it’s certainly interesting and something to chew on.

So Us is a bit of a beautiful mess that stumbles towards the end, but putting aside any of my petty complaints about the movie, it feels ambitious, like the messy parts are messy for the right reasons.

It may not be one of the best movies of the year (or maybe it is?), but it’s definitely one of the most textured movies, one that will sit with you and, because of its place in the developing zeitgeist, should have some lasting power.

As a movie it’s impressive, beautiful to look at, scored effectively and makes great use of existing classic music, and it just feels like a MOVIE.  None of this is half-assed, that’s for sure.

Up Next: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), The Signal (2014)

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