Wednesday, March 20, 2019

'Us' (2019) Movie Review

Woman in a subterranean hallway with a stick

Following up any movie as culturally impactful, wildly popular, and generally acclaimed as Get Out is a daunting task, especially considering it was a debut feature. But Jordan Peele is back with Us, his sophomore horror yarn. I don’t want to pit it against his previous endeavor, they’re drastically different, but it is a creepy, atmospheric, weird-as-balls doppelganger horror. There’s a lot to unpack, but I think I love the way Peele’s brain works. It’s also as relevant as Hands Across America has been or ever will be.

Peele, who also wrote the script, synthesizes various horror influences, from Twilight Zone peculiarity and The Shinning style tension and dread to home invasion terror and family-vacation-gone-wrong tropes. He throws it all in a blender and the result is twisted, stylized genre excursion, heavy on the symbolism, dripping with unnerving imagery, and fraught with scares, violence, and gore. You can watch Us and enjoy the hell out of it as a kinetic genre ride. But it’s also the kind of movie full of small, intricate details, where every piece carries intention, and repeat viewings will only offer more and more depth, layers, and intrigue on multiple levels.

boy in a jumpsuit on fire

The Wilsons, a stick-figure-family-sticker-on-their-station-wagon-perfect family—Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason (Evan Alex)—go on what they think will be a peaceful seaside vacation. But their breezy jaunt unlocks a deep trauma inside Adelaide, and the surface peace turns to terror when a group of red jumpsuit-wearing doppelgangers shows up to wreak havoc.

The doubles hold a dark mirror up to the Wilsons. It’s a story full of othering, offering an off-kilter kink to the norm. At the same time, this feral, wild glimpse at a strange underworld highlights the darkness and weirdness of daily life, of the things that we take for granted as normal and natural, but upon closer examination, are anything but.

Silhouette running down a hallway

Every aspect has a purpose and enhances the larger thematic concerns. The production design is phenomenal, and nothing happens by chance—the opening shot includes a view of a VHS copy of The Man with Two Brains, nodding to the arch of duality and doubles. You can spend the entire time picking loaded peculiarities out of the background and pondering the importance of recurring visual motifs if you’re so inclined.

Peele uses everything to craft tension and pressure, which he often releases by punctuating the dread of Us with humor—Gabe is a goofy, nerdy dad full of one-liners and dad-jokes in the vein of John Candy in The Great Outdoors. And while Peele fills the movie with unsettling images of masks, vicious smiles, and unique, disconcerting camera angles, he also infuses tranquil, ordinary moments with ominous disquiet and unease. Who knew “I Got Five On It” could be used to such disconcerting effect?

Father with a baseball bat protecting his daughter

Playing dual roles, the whole cast is fantastic. Duke’s Gabe is sweet and goofy, offset by his lumbering, ferocious counterpart. Wright Joseph plays Zora as an eye-rolling teen and Umbrae, her alter ego, as unblinking eyes with a sinister smile like a mouthful of knives that gave me goosebumps. Both versions of Alex’s character have a penchant for masks, but to very different ends, and Jason’s shadow moves and snarls like a wild creature. Elisabeth Moss is a hoot as a rose-swilling socialite who says things like, “It’s vodka o’clock,” and chilling when the other shoe drops.

But as good as everyone else is, Lupita Nyong’o operates on some higher plane. She’s haunted and off-balance as a survivor, emotional and frantic and frayed as a mother, and unhinged and uncanny as her double. She’s mesmerizing and subverts what it means to be a strong female lead. It’s a multifaceted performance that bounces between big and nuance, full of bizarre choices that feel bold and out-there, but that also mesh perfectly with everything around it. 

Lupita Nyong'o

That’s actually a good metaphor for Us as a whole. It’s a bunch of weirdness, off-the-wall choices, and seemingly mismatched pieces that often feel on the verge of spinning out of control, that all coalesce into a coherent, meticulously crafted horror movie full of scares and thrills and weighty themes to chew on. It’s a movie I enjoyed as I watched, I liked well enough as I walked out of the theater, but that I haven’t stopped thinking about or unravelling since. [Grade: A-]

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