Spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen Us, then go see it and read this afterward.
Us is a very good horror movie (as I make pretty clear in my review). By all means, every horror fan should go see it this year. It’s well worth your time. However, of the entire movie, two things bother me the most–the characters and that ending. Both are intertwined and both need each other.
Unfortunately, Peele ignores the lions share of the character portion of the story to focus on subtext, symbolism, and scares. But, before we get into why the ending doesn’t work, we need to go over what happened.
In the very beginning of the movie, we see a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyogn’o) wander into a house of mirrors and find the younger version of herself. All we see is her frightened face before it cuts away. Skip ahead and we find out she escaped the house of mirrors and is with her husband and two children, heading to a lake house near the beach in Santa Cruz. The same beach where she saw her double. Eventually, her family is terrorized by their doubles and they fight for survival. They’re able to kill their doubles until only Adelaide and her double is left. Adelaide and her double fight each other until Adelaide kills her double and saves her son. While Adelaide and her family drive away to safety, we get a flashback of what really happened to young Adelaide in the house of mirrors. Her double strangled her and chained her down in the tunnels. The real Adelaide didn’t actually make it out of the house of mirrors at all and the entire time we were seeing her double pretend to be the real Adelaide.
This ending should have landed like a hammer, making the audience gasp and freak and squirm in their seats. But it doesn’t. Despite being slightly predictable, it’s tame and hollow. It feels like it should land but it doesn’t. It’s boring. So, why doesn’t this ending work?
Mostly because Peele ignores the character work.
What do we know about Adelaide Wilson and her family? Almost next to nothing. We don’t know their struggles or their connections or their relationships. Does Adelaide and her husband love each other? Do they have things in their past creating a strong bond? Obviously, the fake Adelaide loves her children, but why? What makes her love them? Why does she care so much about this life she built? We know more about the motivations of the villain (the real Adelaide) than the fake Adelaide.
At the end of the movie, the fake Adelaide gives her son a slight, demented smile, revealing she isn’t who she says she is. He sees this and slides the mask over his face. If we knew more about their relationship with each other, this scene would have been much more impactful. But, we don’t. We don’t know anything about their past or their connections.
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To a degree, the plot twist in this film is very similar to M. Night Shyamalan’s A Sixth Sense, but with one big difference. In The Sixth Sense, we know Malcolm Crowe’s motivation is his love for his wife. They have a spiritual connection into the afterlife. That’s what makes its plot twist so powerful.
Not just because we realize he’s a ghost but because being a ghost destroys any possibility he’s capable of reuniting with his wife. That hurts. His last speech to his wife is so full of sorrow that it hits the audience like a hammer. If you removed this component, the ending wouldn’t have been as big of a deal.
With Us, we don’t get that moment. We don’t feel a sensation of true dread that this fake Adelaide might have sinister and evil plans for her family. Or maybe her true identity reveals something catastrophic for her relationship with her husband. We don’t feel anything for the ramifications of her true identity because it doesn’t bear any weight on the rest of the characters.
It’s not the real Adelaide. So what? We didn’t know much about the real Adelaide to begin with. As far as we’re concerned, it is the real Adelaide. The revelation doesn’t change how we view the characters, it only makes you think how Peele put the wool over our eyes the entire movie.
Like a jump scare, that kind of a storytelling trick works for a few fleeting moments, but it doesn’t last. And that’s why it doesn’t land.