Movie Review – ‘Us’ is thick with subtext, thin with character
Us, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is mostly everything you’d hope for in a horror movie with a few caveats (no story is, after all, perfect). Rich with symbolism, imagery, foreshadowing, and frights, there’s so much story to this story it’s easy to sink your teeth into it time and time again, finding new things to freak out about.
While it takes a fairly unique approach to the dopplegänger story, some of the storytelling tricks are predictable and veer into M. Night Shyamalan territory ala. The Sixth Sense. Peele does a good job making you like the protagonist family right off the bat, but that has more to do with their charming dialogue and interplay than knowing anything substantial about them. And for all the magic and mastery within this film, the lack of depth in the characters is my biggest gripe.
The same problem loomed large over Get Out. It’s a great horror film, and does a lot of things right, but struggled to flesh out its main characters. He does the same thing here with Us, focusing heavily on plot and story, but not so much on character. It doesn’t sink the ship, though. With a horror film teeming with mythology begging to be explained and fleshed out, it’s easy to see Us having several sequels (though I secretly hope it stays a single piece).
Us, starring Luptia Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and Elisabeth Moss, is about the Wilson family, an ordinary African American family trying to get away from their day-to-day lives. However, on their vacation, things take a turn for the worse when their doppelgängers show up to terrorize them.
Let’s start with the characters first since that was my biggest criticism. Peele does a good job letting the audience get to know the characters individually through their actions. The dad (Duke) is the relaxed comic relief, trying to make sure the family is having a good time while also coming down on his kids for saying things like “anus.” The mother (Nyong’o), Adelaide, for her part, puts up with the dad but is fairly pensive and protective.
And the kids? Well, they’re kids. They play on their phones, act immature, and for some reason always wander off when they aren’t supposed to. You know, kid stuff. Other than that, we aren’t given much to go on with who these people are, where they come from, what their background is, or anything. The only thing we really know I can’t say because it would ruin things.
Does this mean all stories have to have fully fleshed out characters to be good? Of course not. This goes double for stories that make it clear what it’s setting out to do. In a genre horror film about doppelgängers, no one expects it to be much of a character story. The storyteller could throw the audience a few bones and add a little character work, but Us tells us what to expect from the beginning.
Still, I wish it would have done a bit more with the characters to make me care and feel more invested in the story. I think the ending would have hit harder if we knew more about the relationship between Adelaide and her husband and the rest of her family. Instead, things fell flat and didn’t have the same impact.
That aside, Peele makes up for things with heavy symbolism and imagery. Taking many pages out of Kubrick’s book (I’m thinking of The Shining mostly), he’s very intentional with each shot and has a myriad of things going on in the background and foreground. Everything has a purpose and everything is pointing to something greater or something else. His use of color, especially red and white, is powerful and striking, helping identify character traits but also how certain characters change.
His use of symbolism to explain certain parts of the subtext is nigh-perfect. I was thinking about what he was trying to say long after the credits ended (for a film geek, that’s all we really want). There’s so much going on and so much to interpret and discover that I have no doubt film scholars will be tearing it apart for decades.
Of course, the average film goer doesn’t care if it’s ripe with imagery but just wants to know if it’s scary or not.
Rest assured, this movie is terrifying. It’s veers far more into slasher territory than Get Out with plenty of blood, sharp objects (it’s amazing how scary scissors can be in a horror context), and sinister smiles to make you have nightmares for weeks. It stays far away from jump scares (though I think there might have been a few) and focuses more on tension and the use of sound to freak you out. I can’t say enough how good the use of sound was in this movie. Like last year’s A Quiet Place, it used sound to ramp up the scares and make things hurt so much more.
Us isn’t like most horror films. It mostly stays away from cheap tricks (I’m looking at you jump scares and lots of women screaming) and sticks to core of what makes movies scary. It uses classic horror filmmaking techniques from Hitchcock and Kubrick and has a rich horror mythology wrapped around it, making the whole experience feel more real. In the end, it cements Peele’s mastery of the genre and proves Get Out wasn’t a fluke. If you like horror, Us is a must-see in 2019.