US is Riveting 21st Century Horror

Get Out is a perfect film. There’s not a line of dialogue out of place, not a single shot or cut that isn’t motivated and timed exactly right, and every performance is dialed in, on point, and works on multiple levels.

Us, writer-director-comedy god Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out, now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD, is decidedly imperfect. At just shy of two hours, it’s on the long side. It’s overstuffed and shaggy, with a script that’s either half-baked or over-cooked, depending on whose taste you trust. Its in-film logic borders on nonsensical. and whereas Get Out was a laser-focused machine with theme and plot interwoven together in perfect harmony, Us tackles a dozen different topics with an approach akin to planting a shotgun next to a barrel of fishing and letting it spray.

So why is it that, having seen the film a few times now, I think Us is the superior film? Or, at the very least, the one that I will be revisiting over and over again?

Let’s see if we can work this out together.

When Adelaide (played as an adult by Lupita Nyong’o) was a young girl, she wandered away from her parents (one of whom is played by current Black Manta/future Candyman Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) into an amusement park haunted house and there encountered…something. A something that has continued to haunt and torment her into her adult life where she is wife to the affable, oblivious Gabe (Winston “M’Baku” Duke) and mother to bored teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and precocious, odd Jason (Evan Alex).

Despite her lingering misgivings, Adelaide agrees to a family trip to a beach house, up the way from Gabe’s obnoxious friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss). But no matter how much Adelaide tries to get into the swing of things, there’s a mounting feeling that something is very wrong. Odd coincidences stack up, convincing her that some kind of nightmare is brewing and will soon swallow the family whole.

Those fears are realized that night, when Jason looks out the window and sees a family standing in their driveway. It’s not long before this other family has forced their way in and revealed the first, but decidedly not last, trick Peele has up his sleeve: This family is made up of doppelgängers of Adelaide, Gabe, and the children. And they are very, very angry.

Part of the joy of Us is the way Peele slowly reveals the nature of his monsters, known as “The Tethered.” Who they are, where they come from, and what they want are all gradually teased out, usually only with inference or performance notes. When it is time to spell things out, exposition is delivered via “Red,” Adelaide’s double, who speaks in a rasping gasp that instantly rockets her into the pantheon of new horror icons (the easily-cosplayed get-up of red coveralls and scissors certainly helps. Expect a LOT of Tethereds at your next Halloween party). Peele took a similar approach to laying out the mechanics of his body-thieves in Get Out, but Us pushes beyond even that film and into the realm of nightmare logic.

And it is a nightmare, one that keeps expanding from its home invasion set-up and into the realm of the apocalyptic. Peele teamed with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (who shot It Follows, and who as such deserves at least some credit for delivering the biggest jump scare in 21st century horror [the big guy]) and composer Michael Abels, and together they cast a spell of overwhelming dread and menace. Get Out is a carefully controlled thriller, while Us often feels deliriously, dangerously out of control. There’s a sense that anything could happen, that even the most basic tenets of reality could be up for grabs, and the result is Us feeling unlike any studio horror film in recent memory.

As a horror film, Us is on the soft-serve side, preferring that mood and that atmosphere over jumps and shocks. Even the film’s ample blood-letting is relatively minor, though there are injuries and deaths that might make you suck in your breath. Peele’s not really interested in traumatizing his audience (yet), preferring to instead give you a rollicking good time that ends with you going out the door energized and enthused about his film and its ideas, rather than brooding over darkness and misery and I don’t know, whatever 16 year olds in black make-up are cutting themselves over these days.

A big factor in that tonal balance is the humor, of which there is plenty. While Us never tips over into overt horror-comedy territory, it is frequently hysterically funny, even as it slides into more troubling and transgressive places. Moss and Heidecker are note perfect as those friends we all have, the ones who are just The Worst but who we still always end up hanging out with anyways. Much of the humor load is carried by Duke, such a stand-out in Black Panther last year, as a man who stubbornly refuses to let go of his own practicality even after having his leg smashed in by his own aggrieved double. Duke slips so easily from warrior in a fantasy land and into the role that could and would have been played by Rick Moranis twenty years ago, it suggests there’s nothing he can’t do.

For Nyong’o, it’s not even a suggestion. She can do anything. Adelaide and Red are both instant icons of the genre, and Nyong’o attacks both roles with a staggering ferocity. At times it is difficult to believe you are watching one performer, not only because of the impressive trickery done to allow actors to plays scenes off themselves throughout the movie, but because everything from how her two characters move, talk, and interact with the world suggest two completely different beings. Something as simple as Red walking across a room is hypnotic and terrifying in equal measure, and that’s all down to Nyong’o, whose performance only grows richer and deeper after you re-watch the film with a full understanding of what Peele has built here.

And you will want to watch Us again. While the film works end-to-end as that rollicking good time I mentioned, it is dense with symbols and signs. Peele seems to treat each of his films as if they might be the last one he’ll ever make, packing every frame with as much meaning as he can.

Is Us a case of too much of a good thing? Maybe. But I found myself punch-drunk on the film’s mad commitment to its world. I loved it in the theater and loved it even more at home. American studio horror films just do not normally take an approach this bracingly weird, happily flying off the rails of conventional narrative in favor dream logic, symbolic import, and thematic hit. The film is nothing less than an attempt to come to terms with the madness of modern living, wrapped up in a gleefully pointed pulp premise (one that owes a significant, admitted debt to a classic-era Twilight Zone episode).

I’d hoped the home media release would have a commentary so I could listen to Peele really dig into the layers of the film, but no dice. The disc does come with several very nice bonus features, including a breakdown of how they pulled off the extensive doubling effects, plus a spotlight on Nyong’o’s performance as Red. It’s a gorgeous transfer, with the Blu-ray positively basking in the rich red and blacks of Gioulakis’ compositions.

I completely understand why Us has proven to be somewhat divisive, but I love every second of its deranged runtime. Here’s hoping Peele never stops.

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