Is it mean-spirited to criticize the director of a horror film for failing to scare me, when he has just made a highly professional effort to bring to the screen something that embodies his own personal sense of what’s frightening? It feels that way sometimes: that, in order to be a fair and impartial judge of cinematic product, this critic needs to dial down her own imperviousness to what many moviegoers reportedly find scary. More specifically, I tend to see humor rather than threat in most of the scenarios typically employed in the horror genre. While a depiction of depraved human cruelty is a likelier bet to unsettle me than, say, some malevolent supernatural entity, even Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs strikes me as funny, in a dark way.
That predilection makes me a tough audience to crack for Jordan Peele’s new feature Us, his follow-up to the wildly successful Get Out (2017). Lots of people are going to adore this movie, and I wish them joy of it. Alas, it just didn’t work for me – not nearly as well as its predecessor, which was dripping with acid observations about race relations in America.
While the title is meant to suggest “US” (and the doppelgänger baddies explicitly identify themselves, when asked what exactly they are, as “Americans”), the metaphorical subtext of Us is armchair sociology at best, reminiscent of the aliens = Communists trope in 1950s sci/fi movies. The premise of a dehumanized, resentful underclass that dwells literally underground has an honorable lineage in popular culture (think of the Morlocks in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, or the scruffy social discards of London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere); but in Us, the explanation of the motivations for the antagonists’ aboveground killing spree is so offhand and undeveloped that it seems almost like an afterthought on the writer/director’s part. And thinking too hard about what this is all supposed to mean leads one inevitably into a quicksand of myriad plot holes – especially once a not-entirely-surprising plot twist is revealed at the end.
Us works far better as a straightforward horror flick than as social commentary, as Peele has said was his intent – again, if genre conventions such as home invasions and evil twins are the sorts of things that make your skin crawl. The director certainly puts his excellent cast through the requisite steps to evoke a sense of menace, ably abetted by Michael Abels’ clever score. Being grounded in sketch comedy, he also can’t resist defusing the tension at intervals with a bit of humor. Often this takes the form of seeing smart black characters do things that dumb white people are notorious for doing in slasher movies, like going down into that creepy cellar alone. It’s not attempting to deconstruct and subvert the genre in the overt manner of Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods or Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, but it does manage to get in a few pokes at the clichés. Contemporary device-dependent lifestyles also take a light drubbing, as in a scene where a voice-activated virtual assistant starts playing the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” most inappropriately during a scene of hair-raising carnage.
Another piece of what Peele wanted to do with his sophomore effort, according to interviews, was to make a pure genre movie with an ensemble of black actors playing middle-class Californians who, narratively speaking, could be cast in any color. In this he succeeds splendidly. The Wilsons are a family who enjoy beach vacations, whose doofy dad Gabe (Winston Duke) tells doofy dad jokes, whose overprotective mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is a retired ballet dancer, whose young teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) never takes her nose out of her cellphone except to make sarcastic comments, whose middle-school-aged son Jason (Evan Alex) has attention deficit issues. That they also happen to be people of color should no longer raise any eyebrows over “plausibility.” The movie’s widespread appeal should serve as a potent reminder to studios that black people’s stories can span a broad gamut of experience.
The cast of Us does a terrific job with the challenge of bringing to life both the core characters and the doubles who threaten them. Worthy of special mention, besides Nyong’o, Duke, Wright Joseph and Alex, is the ever-wonderful Elisabeth Moss, who wrings every iota of snark out of her role as Kitty, an unhappily married mother of twins, neighbor and friend to the Wilson family. Although most of the Tethered (Adelaide’s counterpart Red being the exception, for reasons that should not be spoiled) are almost entirely nonverbal, they do have distinct personalities reflecting aspects of the characters to whom they are connected, as befits a story that plays on the archetype of doppelgängers as symbolizing the suppressed darker tendencies of human nature.
If there were an Oscar for Best Choreography, I’d give one to Peele and his ensemble immediately for their remarkably effective use of movement to convey the personas of their doubles. Red’s command of dance moves, assimilated from Adelaide, powerfully informs her fighting skills; Jason’s feral double Pluto travels mainly on all fours like a cross between a simian and a spider.
All of this is most entertaining to watch, even if you’re not, strictly speaking, scared by it to the degree intended. Though I wouldn’t enshrine it in as lofty a cinematic category as Get Out, Us is a well-made movie with plenty of strengths.