8 April 2019

Us review

I don't think I'm overstating things when I say that Jordan Peele's Get Out ended up being a pretty big deal by any measure. It made just over $250 million worldwide on a budget of less than $5 million; it received the kind of critical acclaim most directors would kill for; it was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), winning Best Original Screenplay; and maybe most importantly, left the kind of immediate cultural impact that can't help but ensure its longevity as both a movie and an important part of pop culture. It is, in short, a great movie - which means that the only real question I had going into Peele's Us was simply this. How can it possibly live up to Get Out?

Sadly, the answer is that it doesn't, but the reason is a little more complicated than just "it's not as good". In many ways, Us is (somewhat appropriately) the mirror image of Get Out - very much still recognisable as a socially satirical horror film, but inverted in a few places to create something that feels radically different to its predecessor. The most obvious of these inversions is that Us is deliberately far less comedic than Get Out, instead focusing its energy on creating the kind of visceral, immediate scares that the more cerebral Get Out lacked - but maybe more important is the films approach to theme, swapping out the laser like precision of Get Out in favour of something less refined but significantly more complex, open ended and further reaching.

The plot itself, however, starts off fairly simple. We follow a fairly average American family of four (the Wilsons) as they holiday in Santa Cruz, which also happens to be where matriarch Adelaide suffered a traumatic experience as a child. That night, 4 mysterious figures appear at the end of the beach house's driveway, terrorising the family before revealing themselves to be terrifying doppelgangers of the Wilsons.

That's not a spoiler, by the way, and not just because the nature of the home invaders is something that's been explicit in Us' marketing from the very start. The idea of doppelgangers is one that's been explored countless times in various genres of fiction, but importantly, their inclusion here isn't intended as a shocking twist - instead, it's where Us starts in earnest, kicking off an examination of class and privilege that drives the film throughout. If Get Out was Peele taking umbrage with suspiciously woke liberals, then Us is his rallying cry against capitalist society itself, highlighting the plight of the exploited and the willful ignorance of those that benefit from that exploitation, all centered around the idea that "there but for the grace of God go I".

At least, so I think. I enjoyed puzzling my way through Us, attempting to figure out exactly what Peele was trying to get at, but I wasn't joking earlier when I said that Us' themes aren't as well established or fully explored as those of Get Out, resulting in a film that can't help but feel... not poorly thought out by any means, but certainly lacking much of the clarity and comprehensibility of Peele's debut. For much of the movie, that's not really too big a problem - Us is at it's strongest early on, when its main focus seems to be on delivering scares with mere hints towards what it's all building towards. It's only towards the end that Peele's ambition ultimately gets the better of him, resulting in a third act that does its best to provide a satisfying conclusion to the plot of the movie while also attempting to tie together all of Us' themes - neither of which it does particularly well.

A good chunk of this finale is delivered in the form of pure exposition from one character to another - worse, it's exposition that ends up over-explaining ultimately meaningless plot details (and in the process raising questions that simply didn't need to be raised) while still leaving the audience mostly in the dark when it comes to what it was all meant to mean. Add to that a late in the day "twist" that is so blindly obvious from the opening scene of the movie that by the time it was revealed I'd literally forgotten we weren't meant to know it yet, and yes, Us' finale has some definite, tangible problems.

And that's a real bugger. A vague sense of dissatisfaction is never what you want to be feeling upon leaving the cinema, yet that's exactly what Us left me with in spite of all its earlier strengths. With a better finale Us could've been a genuinely must-see film - instead it's frustratingly flawed, showing so much promise for a decent chunk of its running time thanks to Peele's direction, the subversive themes and a number of fantastic performances (Lupita Nyong'o is just next level fantastic in her dual roles as both leading lady and main antagonist here) before concluding all that with something that just didn't really work for me, and I suspect won't work for many people.

So no, I don't think Us lives up to the expectations set by Get Out. The phrase "difficult second album" can't help but come to mind - it's a less consistent, less certain experience, shaggier around the edges and lacking the kind of images and iconography that helped make Get Out so instantly iconic. But the ideas at play here prove that Peele is anything other than a one-trick pony all by themselves, which when combined with the strength of his moment-to-moment film making (especially in the first half of the movie) ensures that I'm still very much interested in seeing whatever he does next.

3 stars

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