It’s good to be Jordan Peele right now. His first feature as writer/director racked up the trifecta of approval: Audience, critic, and awards show acclaim. That success dovetailed into the launch of a Twilight Zone reboot series which he now hosts. And his second horror movie, Us, is currently dominating the box office.
I’d suggest this as a good time for Peele to check his ego though…
While Us is certainly a good movie by most objective measures, I’m not yet prepared to call it great. Not as great as the ~94% Rotten Tomatoes score to be sure. This is a movie made for critics, and for armchair critics who delight in attempting to unpack vague metaphor and symbolism and substitute that practice for visceral enjoyment. It screams of the work of an auteur operating with a blank check and a surplus of built up Hollywood cache, not unlike – and it pains me to say this – M. Night Shyamalan after The Sixth Sense. But Us isn’t Jordan Peele’s Unbreakable and definitely not his The Village. Perhaps it’s his Signs: A skillfully-made horror-thriller with a super divisive ending.
Luckily Jordan Peele is such a talented director that you know even if all the pieces don’t quite align perfectly, you’re still in for an engaging and fun experience. And Us is undeniably FUN. The first two acts really sing, setting up the characters and teasing out the central mystery as all Hell breaks loose.
Oh – in case you weren’t aware of what that central mystery is: So… this family, the mom’s played by Lupita Nyong’o and the dad by Winston Duke, and there are two kids I don’t feel like looking up their names, they take a trip to a lakefront cabin and while there, the power suddenly goes out and they’re attacked by a group of pretty much exact doubles of all four of them, except the doubles are creepy and violent and seem to want to harm them, and they don’t speak. Actually the “mom” speaks, but she does so in a weird, labored, deep, raspy voice, and she doesn’t provide a whole lot of information about who they are or what they want. Just that they’re “shadows” of the actual people who were born and raised in a hellish underground netherworld, and now they’re here to have their moment. All this stuff is in the trailer so, forgive my lazy way of breaking it down.
Again, focusing on the first two acts of the movie, you can choose to go with the flow and simply experience it as though it were a traditional home invasion film a la The Strangers, and in that sense everything is exactly where it should be. It’s tense, scary, unpredictable and (no surprise if you saw Get Out) alarmingly funny. Most of the time the comedy elements are woven in organically and make sense in context, but when the shit hits the fan the tonal shifts become jarring. I saw the movie in a packed house, and jokes towards the end of the second act often landed with a palpable silence from the audience. But the central performances (and it is two performances) from Nyong’o and Duke (to a lesser extent) are fantastic. They are really swinging for the fences here and it works. The child actors acquit themselves just fine as well, and they both have a lot of weight to carry throughout.
That third act though… that god damn third act. It’s not that the movie falls apart. Far from it. It’s just that the surreal elements that probably would have better gone unexplained become, well, explained. And the final twist that is the cherry on top quite simply doesn’t pass the logic test. I’ve read a number of comments online arguing that nothing regarding the mechanics of the plot necessarily needs to make sense, because the movie is a fantasy allegory… but it really does require you, as the audience, to meet them more than halfway.
And speaking of that allegory, online debate is much more active and feverish about What It All Means than any other aspect of the film. It’s here that Us also fails to completely live up to Get Out. Where Get Out had a pretty unambiguous and legible message, Us is far more open to interpretation. Possibly to its detriment, possibly to its credit. Unfortunately, I can’t wade into those waters here without completely spoiling the whole plot. If you are on its wavelength, there is an ASTONISHING number of hints, clues, visual references and thematic repetition to take in. It seems that not a single detail no matter how innocuous lacks import. Repeat viewings will be mandatory.
I’m going to file this one as a success, because I did enjoy the movie and the divided audience reaction doesn’t seem to be hurting its bottom line. On the other hand I am not the first person to describe this movie as “Shyamalan-esque”, and if I could caution Jordan Peele about anything it would be that the line between Sixth Sense Shyamalan and The Happening Shyamalan is very thin indeed.