Us Review (Film, 2019)
I’m going to be forthright in this review. Us is great. Horror fans will find a lot of value in the film. While I will do my best to avoid spoilers for this film, I know from my own experience that I think the film is better enjoyed knowing as little as possible going in. Nothing beyond the initial concept is discussed in this review.
My struggle with this film is one of expectations. Us is every bit as well made and scary a horror film as I expected it to be. I also, from the much hyped trailer, figured out most of the plot in one watch. There were little details thrown in that seemed like simple style notes that were so closely framed and filmed with such clarity that I figured out what was what. It happens more often than I discuss just from having watched thousands of films in my life. Going in without seeing that trailer and reading as little as you can about the plot is the way to go. My enthusiasm is only dampened by my knowledge of this kind of horror film leading me to certain conclusions that shouldn’t have been obvious in the trailer. I only bring it up because I wish I could have experienced those beautifully written and executed twists without knowing what was going to happen. It’s so well planned and laid out that they would have been very rewarding to experience in real time.
The Wilson family is on vacation. They’re staying at a beautiful summer home with easy access to a bay and the ocean. Strange coincidences keep bring mother Adelaide back to a traumatic event from her childhood. That puts her on edge and stresses out her whole family. Adelaide’s suspicions prove founded when her family encounters another family standing in their driveway after returning home from the beach.
Jordan Peele, already an Academy Award-winning screenwriter for his masterful horror film Get Out, returns as writer/director for his sophomore effort Us. The commentary and plot is not as easily accessible as Get Out, though the scares and exploration of theme and form suggest the beginnings of a long and fruitful career in horror filmmaking. Both Get Out and Us are horror films about America. Get Out explores race and privilege; Us explores privilege and the American dream.
Adelaide and her family have foils in the Tyler family, also vacationing in the same neighborhood. Where the Wilsons have a summer home, the Tylers have a summer mansion. The Wilson’s buy a used boat; the Tylers have a brand new one. The Wilsons bring a cooler to the beach; the Tylers bring a full bar. The families are friends, but the Wilsons clearly express their frustration at interacting with the better off Tyler family at every juncture. Even the children don’t exactly get along, with the older Tyler twins mocking Zora and Jason for acting different at the beach. It would be irresponsible to ignore the racial dynamics in play in these interactions, as the Wilson family is the only black family at this particular beach, but Peele’s greater concerns lie with the unattainability of the American dream and the disappointment of relative failure compared to others’ success.
Those concerns are brought into the forefront when the Wilsons meet the new family at night in their driveway; they look exactly like them. They are literally doubles. The privilege of living in a world that lets Adelaide’s family thrive create all the physical, social, and psychological differences from Red’s family. They are the same, but different, and opportunity is all that separates them.
From there, the film evolves from psychological suspense to full on slasher dynamics. The commentary continues to grow and evolve in equally brutal and fascinating ways, though the means to that end is largely violent rather than the earlier passive aggressive interaction. That still exists, though the pettiness largely falls to the wayside when lives are on the line.
I’m a big fan of double/twin horror. The use of misdirection through seemingly identical figures can go in so many different ways. I give Peele credit for using this dynamic in a way I’ve never seen before. He leans into the match to create a situation where neither side of the conflict has an advantage. They know each other. They are the same whether they like it or not. Their perceived differences mean nothing when forced to confront their conflicting goals face to face. Neither has the advantage and that creates so much more tension than usual in this kind of storytelling. There is also no confusing which is which, as the doubles dress in red jumpsuits and brandish gold scissors the entire film.
Lupita Nyong’o gives one of the greatest horror performances ever committed to film in her dual role as Adelaide and Red. Adelaide and Red, by type, are horror film characters we’ve seen before. Adelaide is a woman still recovering from trauma in her childhood. She’s managed to find her voice again and create a great life through a lot of hard work. Red has been working hard, too, but her story is one of pain and suffering. She is the slighted villain who knows what she could have and grows more bitter by the day for not experiencing those joys for herself. Nyong’o inhabits both roles with an authenticity not often seen in horror, creating even more tension for the audience as both hero and villain are sympathetic characters who make strong cases for why they are right. The voice she created for Red is especially chilling, a guttural and halting vocal fry barely capable of sounding louder than a whisper. At her most desperate, Adelaide picks up on that vocal inflection, too, further connecting their stories in really rewarding ways.
I must also make special mention of Madison Curry’s performance as Young Adelaide and Young Red. This is the kind of stock child horror performance that could just exist and set up the story to good effect. Curry brings so much more. The differences that Nyong’o inhabits in far more exaggerated and tortured forms in the present are predicated on the slight differences that Curry brings to two almost-identical characters in the past. In fact, the opening sequence of the film is literally centered on Curry’s performance, following Young Adelaide on a childhood trip to the beach she returns to with her family decades later.
I have done my best to minimize any significant spoilers in this review. I believe Us is best viewed with an open mind. This is a very different film from Get Out and that’s perhaps its most surprising aspect. Peele has produced two vastly different horror films riffing on American society. They both feel real and significant. Peele joked about Get Out being a documentary, but good jokes often have a shade of truth in them. He is producing horror films that amplify the American experience to terrifying new heights. I cannot wait to see what he does next on the big screen.
Us is currently playing in theaters.