Review: Us (2019)

Jordan Peele’s Us has the unenviable position of following an instant classic debut. Get Out was my favorite not-mini-series film of 2017, perfectly mixing horror tropes with a grand statement about race in America, a rare film that tackles real issues in a meaningful yet digestible way. Where Get Out was rather straightforward in its statements, Us is an entirely different beast.

The film starts simply enough – Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o, briefly encounters a doppelganger as a child and spends her life in fear of its return. While on vacation with her family, they are attacked by their collective doppelgangers. This is a film that obviously plans to dive deep, but saying anything more exact than that would spoil the fun.

Luckily, Us offers so much more than narrative bullet points. The visual language of the film is phenomenal – lighting grants an ominous view of the doppelgangers as they first appear, and their body language is right in that inhuman, uncanny zone. The acting and technical elements work in perfect unison to highlight their differences, with close-up shots revealing haunting little touches that really drive the point home.

This sense of unlike doubles is really brought to life through the performances, especially lead Lupita Nyong’o. She captures this knowing, frightened mother role well, but where she really shines is as the copy. There’s this assured, sinister grace to her movements, the way she contorts her face as she speaks – she fully sells herself as one of the more ominous movie villains.

The film is loaded with imagery rife with potential symbolic meaning, though what it all adds up to is naturally a bit murky. This is a good thing, as this film creates horror through the unknown. A pair of scissors alone is a bit scary as a deadly weapon – having it as a common weapon shared by the doppelgangers suggests some deeper meaning at play.

At times, it feels like Peele wants us to be actively viewing this movie on both the figurative and literal level. Though Us is clearly a horror movie, I feel the style demands it be read quite a bit differently. Where my usual focus in this genre would be on who will survive and how, Us pushes past that. It’s ultimately a mystery film – it sets us up to believe there has to be a deeper meaning behind all these symbols, and then gives reason for the protagonist to hunt that meaning down. The struggle to survive is matched by a macabre curiosity.

Peele clears up some matters by the end, but a lot is left to linger. A week later, I’m still wrapping my head around some of the imagery. This is a film that hits hard, the type that will inevitable spawn a hundred different think pieces due to the depth of its imagery.

Which, I’ve been going on about its symbolism, but this is in no way a movie that requires a deep interest beyond the surface level. Like Get Out, Us makes these dense topics accessible. This is ultimately a comedic horror – which is not to say it uses this imagery as a backdrop for comedy. In fact, this is a rare horror comedy that manages to use comedy to heighten the horror at key moments. Punchlines in comedy tend to act like relief – here, Peele uses that relief to give a false sense of security before immediately reminding you of the brutal context.

The narrative structure is also on-point, evolving as new points of tension pop up. The story goes to wild places, but it always feels like a natural progression – I kept comparing it to Akira, which similarly starts small and uses that limited initial focus to tell a personal story on an increasingly larger scale. One thing that makes this feel so consistent despite its vibrant shift in focus is how it keeps cycling back to the same motifs – even if you don’t feel like diving into the symbolism, it gives a sense of purpose to every moment.

Us is a visceral, at times surreal horror experience. Though it doesn’t quite reach the level of Get Out, it is certainly a worthy follow-up. Jordan Peele is bold in his mixing of genres that are generally looked over as lighter fare with stark symbolism and dense social critique. This is a movie about us as both Americans in general and individuals. It will get under your skin, both in its immediate horrors and the strange way it gives just enough answers to keep you asking more questions. Great movies linger after they’ve finished, and Us certainly lingers.

4.5 Stars Out of 5

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