Us: Dissecting Jordan Peele’s Sophomore Effort

Us 2019

Last night, I had the good fortune to see over 95% of Jordan Peele’s newest film, Us. I know what you’re wondering – the missing 0-5% came when I had to go let my brother into the theater. Luckily, it was in the beginning of the film, and I didn’t miss much from a narrative standpoint. I definitely saw enough to form an opinion. So – Us, is it good? Is it as good as Get Out?

Find out the answers…right now! Yes and no. It is difficult to discuss Us without spoiling it, but I will try my best. The film, which is director Jordan Peele’s second, feels just like that – a movie made by a new (talented) filmmaker. It’s bold, ambitious, and rough around the edges. Those looking for another polished gem like Get Out may be disappointed. However, Us is still well above most of its competition in the horror genre.

If you’re on the fence about seeing it, I recommend that you do, but I have some caveats:

  1. Do you like horror movies? Us is a horror movie – there’s gore and bodily harm. Keep that in mind.
  2. I personally did not find it very scary…but I have been watching horror movies since before I had any right to (Evil Dead 2 when I was six…fun fun!). If you get scared easily or are unused to horror films in a theater, this one might freak you out.

Beginning as a “Mirror Image” in the Twilight Zone

Okay, still on board? There is one other thing I feel I should advise you do before (or right after) you see Us; watch “Mirror Image.” “Mirror Image” is the title of an early (season one) episode of the Twilight Zone. It explores a woman meeting her doppelganger at a bus station. As if that weren’t creepy enough, our protagonist starts to suspect that this double has sinister motives – mainly, that she’s trying to replace her original.

Sound familiar? Well, it should. In an interview, Peele admitted that his newest film was partly inspired by this chilling premise. Given that he was no doubt combing through the archive of classic Twilight Zone episodes to see what could be updated for his 2019 relaunch, this makes sense.

For the record, I believe Peele chose a fantastic episode to expand. Watching “Mirror Image” is fine, but feels incomplete. Given the Twilight Zone‘s 20-minute run time, there isn’t a lot of room for exploration. The episode merely gives the audience a premise, resolves its principal plot (rather abruptly), and then teases the broader implications.

Yes, there’s a doppelganger – that much is clear, but where did it come from? What did it really want? Why did it want this? These are all questions that, with a run time of 121 minutes, Us has time to answer.

So, how well does it do? I’ve told you I liked the film, and I recommend you see it for yourself, but you may have noticed I’ve been scarce on the details. That’s because I find it difficult to talk about what I liked/didn’t like without getting into spoiler territory. I also think horror is at it’s best when you don’t know what happens next. So – if you are at all interested in Us, please go see it for yourself – don’t let the internet ruin a fun theater experience for you.

All righty – still here? Well then, let’s dive in. Warning: Spoilers (duh)

A Struggle to Maintain Balance and Tone

The marketing department behind Us did a commendable job teasing the film. Throughout all the trailers I saw before going into the movie, I saw the same images – a home invasion, creepy doppelgangers, children running in a very disconcerting fashion. All of this gave me the image of a very tight bottle film, one confined to this house in the woods.

But of course, this is only the first act. Peele is not content to stay within the walls of the Wilson vacation home. As the plot progresses, the stakes escalate. We learn that our main family are not the only ones dealing with unwelcome visitors. Duplicates are everywhere – and they are angry, killing and replacing their originals across the continental US. As the Wilsons make their way through the neighborhood, dispatching doubles as they go – I realized something: I was watching a zombie movie.

Us 2019 bottle film
All the marketing materials for this film hinted at a small-scale, intimate encounter with the supernatural.

Us pulls off an abrupt shift in horror sub-genre: it cartwheels from tense home invasion film to fun zombie invasion film. No, the doubles aren’t undead corpses, but they meet all the criteria: They’re human-looking without being rationale. They don’t use guns. They swarm. And they can be (and are) dispatched by rudimentary weapons.

Most importantly – the “dispatching” becomes fun. This is, in part, because of how tense the initial setup was. I can’t tell you the number of times the theater cheered when a particular mirror image met its end. People were invested in watching the Wilson family fight back.

I, however, had some issues. While the setup provided the tension needed for making the “revenge” segment fully enjoyable, the plot was spiraling. In Us, Peele presents two opposite ideas at once: Something unbelievable is happening in a very realistic way. In other words, realism fights against the surreal, and I’m not sure Peele fully pulls it off.

We keep pulling away from reality only for a line of dialogue or a certain shot to yank us back, seeming to say “Wait a minute! This is real!” At the end of the film, I was asking myself why? Why did the film keep trying to pull back? To me – it creates issues, in part because the plot of the movie is so bizarre.

I’ll dive into that more in a moment, but one last thought on inconsistent tones: comedy. Comedy can be great in a horror movie. It provides a relief in tension and lets the audience collectively exhale (all while knowing things still aren’t okay). Peele used comedy to great effect in Get Out, simultaneously relieving and creating tension in the dialogue between the protagonist and his host family.

Us does not master its comedic chops so triumphantly. This is in part because of the sub-genre shift. As it becomes a gory beat ’em, the family is still cracking jokes – at one point having an argument on who has the highest kill count. For me, this went too far to diffuse the tension and actually took the film into farce territory.

It’s tough to believe the family is really in danger when they’re arguing over who has killed the most mirror images – especially when two of the people arguing are children. How threatening is our monster if it can be unemotionally dispatched by an eight year old?

Given that the ending reverts back to its creepy, closed, tense atmosphere, the middle act sticks out as if it were its own animal.

The Positives and Negatives of Us‘ Ambition

All of this ties into the scope of Us. Unlike Get Out, there is no central theme for the plot to build off of. The closest Us comes to making a statement is on classism. The doppelgangers can easily be seen as the poor, the disenfranchised, the ostracized lower working class. Heck, you can even get political as the uneducated, primitive, armed, red-clad Americans rage an abrupt war on their unsuspecting counterparts.

But the mirror images, or the tethered, as the film describes them, aren’t easily fit into any one box. For example – they can also be seen as America’s mentally ill, left with no easy source of help. They can also be seen as abuse victims themselves who are finally saying enough is enough. Whatever estranged “other” you want to use, odds are the tethered fit at least part of the bill.

Get Out Us
Get Out is a film where every character, every bit of dialogue, every setting all supported one theme. Us is not this neat, nor is it trying to be.

Peele, for his part, explores a multitude of ideas in Us – many of which feel underdeveloped. One example that comes to mind is the nature of the tethered, and how much they are bound to their real world counterparts. In multiple scenes of the film, the tethered act out a mirror of the original’s actions. One even kills itself by copying an original. And yet they don’t appear bound to this rule. At other times, they are off doing their own thing, completely separate of the original (they all appear far more athletic).

In general, the plot does not move in a natural way, but rather in one to highlight the effect Peele wants to accomplish. Why else would two family members literally sit out the climax? Yes, the dad is injured but he has still been plenty involved up to this point – ditto with the daughter. Why, after a speech that they need to run to the ocean, would our main family flee in a car instead of a boat (there are two boats available)? Why the constant splitting up.

Us feels far more constrained by the expectations of its genre. Even as Peele tells a unique story, he is using established and worn threads to do it. When the final twist comes, it is expected: the equivalent of a movie slasher returning to life for one last kill.

This isn’t to say it isn’t effective. Peele is a strong storyteller and he does a good job of compelling the audience to see the narrative his way, but – in many ways – Us is more the film I expected him to make first. Its script is unwieldy in places and its tone is constantly shifting – almost as if the movie itself has a doppelganger with ideas.

Us is a daring effort, one that shoots for the stars – trying to deliver a film that is both real and fantastical, allegory and escapism. It is admirable how much it succeeds. If I can compare it to anything, it is the works of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead), who took a stab at saying something about American culture, but was also one to have a lot of gory fun in the process.

 

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