Wow, this is turning out to be sort of difficult to write about. Going in to watch Us, it’s inevitable to try compare it to the layering and metaphors found in Get Out, either immediately upon completing the film or even while watching. I am guilty of trying to break it down in real-time, to various degrees of success. But the twist is this: Us is a completely different movie and is worth going into with a blank slate of expectations.
The basic plot is that Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) goes into a mirror maze as a young child and encounters a duplicate of herself. The encounter shakes her emotionally, and when the movie picks back up with her as an adult, she is still scarred from the event. And then a set of doppelgängers shows up, matching her entire family.
Let me get some of the Get Out/Us comparisons out of the way up front. Yes, both of these movies are horror films with black leads that digs into issues of race. But of the two, I would say that Get Out perhaps wears its metaphors on its sleeve a bit more than Us. That’s not to say that the metaphors are overly dense, but rather in Us they take a bit of a back seat to the surface layer of the story. I would go so far as to say that the hook for Us, rather than symbolism, is the character work. Every character here has layers in their performances and dialogue, and that’s not just because each performance is duplicated.
There’s the current trend of talking about prestige or elevated horror films, which is a bit crap. Good horror, no matter the production value, has always used visceral emotional reactions to try and forge new connections between ideas and aspects of society. Us manages to feel a bit more prestige-ey and B-movie at the same time. It’s not because the production feels cheap. The direction of this film from Jordan Peele is so devilishly clever that I need to see it again just to enjoy how it was filmed. The score is also perfection. Michael Abels plays with themes and styles in a way that could be overwhelming but weaves the score in such a way that it complements the film at every turn, never overshadowing it. The cinematography (speaking of shadows) is masterful. Mike Gioulakis has been on my radar since It Follows and this might be the film where he’s matched himself, perhaps surpassing his work on that movie. The way that certain people and locations are shot in almost too much shadow, or where he chooses to really feature the bright lights. The way that well lit areas may or may not seem safe, the way that shadows soften or harden depending on what’s about to happen, or happening out of sight. It’s almost too good.
No, what’s somewhat B-movie about Us is the “gimmick” of the evil twin. That is a story element that is hard to tackle and not make cheesy. There are funny elements about it in Us, to be fair. But the humor is used to set tension levels, and never completely undercut it. That B-movie element is there, but it’s a nod rather than the tone of the whole movie. The references in Us, at least upon initial viewing, seem to be a bit more blatant than those in Get Out. That B-movie contrivance feels like it might set the tone at first, especially with Winston Duke‘s goofball husband and father Gabe Wilson, ends up ebbing and flowing with a feel that Us creates all in its own. The cheese is simply just another tonal reference to the horror films that have inspired Peele.
Don’t get me wrong. That tone doesn’t mean this movie is campy or schlock. The tension is actually incredible. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my shoulders hurt when I left the theater because of the amount of tension I was feeling. My body tensed up early on and I held that for the remainder of the film. But that humor that’s woven into Us makes it bearable. Without it I don’t know if I could braced myself for the full run-time. Which is good, because I definitely want to watch this movie again. It only seems fitting that this movie should be seen twice to get another perspective.