Everyone knows Jordan Peele wants to hold up a mirror to society; no one thought he’d take it so literally.
Us, more than most films this year, will suffer from the weight of expectation. Get Out’s sophomore cousin, inevitably read in conjunction and following from Peele’s debut, as opposed to being assessed purely as a standalone film, fares little better. Pundits and fans, casual and dedicated, will predictably grant here Writer, Producer and Director Peele, so proven mere years ago, more leeway as he makes his grand, sweeping statements; transcending ruminations rarely attuned nor favoured in like horrors that pivot on how well they are integrated rather than, as here, being resplendent beyond that otherwise rendered dramatically.
Returning to Santa Cruz, a childhood lynchpin, Adelaide (Lupita N’yongo), ever hesitant of the haven, gradually recalls a traumatic childhood incident. Proffering us precious details, she cautions her now husband (Wintson Duke) and children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) from venturing too close to the reflection-filled carnival fixture so affecting even decades on.
Soon discovering an unnerving family in the driveway, their appearance is never so shocking as realising that, uncannily and in son Jason’s words, they look like “us.”
Unlike Get Out, Us is an easy film to define. It is a horror, with comic tinges. The former, a comedy with elements of horror. As a horror it succeeds but only in stretches; the home invasion, featured heavily in the promotional material, being the most shocking and effective sequence. Containing numerous jump scares and the only upending revelation in spite of its inundation in umpteenth promos, as soon as it’s over Us largely ceases to be scary.
A later tranche, utilising a not dissimilar format, remains the film’s other highlight though is conversely more strongly played for comedy with the excellent Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker sporting two of Us’ several uncommonly creative roles.
In spite of it’s flaws Us’ gift is it’s casting and the requisite performances from a smorgasbord of talent. N’Yongo, far and above the most memorable visage in dual roles, is both impactfully empathetic and terrifying, though the best scares are down to Wright Joseph and her unending and utterly freakish grimace that more than anything else will keep some viewers awake at night.
Duke, littering the action with misfired moments of levity, nonetheless shines in an ever-relatable sequence where he first confronts those in his driveway; well-establishing the stakes and crucial elements of the family dynamic.
Praise will fairly abound for Us’ leads that however should not be matched by that foisted on it’s screenplay, intent above all else not on scares but making an aboundingly evident allegorical point. The scares scatter for that thematic, variedly conveyed by title cards, flashbacks, an opening monologue delivered via television and a massive exposition dump amidst two characters standing still for some minutes who really shouldn’t be standing still.
A later twist, no way near as revelatory as the theatrics in the final acts that so cause it to be telegraphed, had it become apparent earlier might have allowed us to better engage and grapple with its implications that are nonetheless profound. Peele’s social commentary proving again more endearing than his still accomplished horror bona fides, the significance of this particular turn, wasted nearer the conclusion, is not it’s shock value but how it alters the dynamic between characters and bears so heavily on Us’ allegorical reasoning.
Revealed amidst goings-on outlandish even by the standards set by this screenplay, Us’ forbear for instance asked us to suspend minimal disbelief to best engage with it’s premise; Peele here demands our minds take an about-turn to fully reckon with his musings on middle-class ‘paranoias’ and the impacts of disenfranchisement. Such a departure from that even remote to realism is not unheard of in horror but so late in the piece and apart from that hitherto evinced does not work.
Packed with allusions to classic horrors (Jaws, The Shining, among others) and symbolism, here centred on the ever-present scissors, themselves not unlike the number 11 that pops up so frequently (extrapolated to an appropriately relevant bible verse), that underlining Peele’s thematic and blatantly figurative fixtures is cleverer than so much of their corresponding dramatic execution and therein lies the problem.
Intent on an idea, it is largely conveyed with a sledgehammer where the creators would have been better to occasionally deploy, as Get Out and it’s villain so pointedly managed, a scalpel. Sacrificing both horror and comedy to so impart it and undermining it’s abounding resonance in forgoing what could otherwise have been conveyed with greater dedication in that passingly horrific and duly dramatic, Us lands though never so nearly as well as fans will have hoped.
Us is in cinemas from March 28
Us on Film Fight Club