Sunday, July 28, 2019

Us (2019) Works Best in Fragments But Not As A Whole

Us movie review
Universal Pictures
In 2017, Jordan Peele made the unforgettable switch as a comedy veteran to masterful horror director. His debut film Get Out stunned audiences with complex storytelling, attention to detail, and ability to set an allegory of the real world into the horror scene. While it’s natural to expect just as much from him for his next film, Us turned out to be a lukewarm experience in its story and script. Much of it works on paper, but what's presented on screen leaves as many open-ended questions as it answers.

The Wilson family – Adelaide (Lupita N’Yongo), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) - venture to a lake house near Santa Cruz for a fun vacation. Their harmless trip to the beach turns deadly when mysterious clones emerge around the country to hunt their other halves down. A traumatic event from Adelaide’s past, where she encountered her own doppelganger, brings back haunting memories, but they also might be the key to their survival.

If you haven't seen Us, read at your own risk. This post contains spoilers!

Horror movies usually allow enough room for suspense for the audience to ask questions, encouraging us to rewatch them and see what we missed or how things add up. One of the brilliant, if not most addictive and intriguing element about Get Out was how the easter eggs were so interwoven into the story, many of them are easy or difficult to miss. No matter if you catch the metaphors the first or millionth time, there’s always something to discover that fits into the story perfectly. Us tries to replicate this same kind of world-building. Some of its themes are obvious. Others remained more heavy-handed or completely miss the mark.

Doppelgangers, or the "Tethers" as they're known here, aren’t an entirely original concept in film. But the use of them in Us, to build up Adelaide, her doppelganger Red, and the shocking third act twist, is actually quite brilliant. Adelaide is built as the protagonist who suffered a traumatic event of seeing herself in a fun house; it wasn't an illusion in the hall of mirrors, but a real person. In glimpses of her childhood, we see how the event had a profound affect on her, forcing her to retreat and grow silent, never to bring up the experience to anyone again. By the end of the film, after her doppelganger returns with exact copies of the rest of her family and others, they attack her, and we learn Adelaide was originally a Tether and switched places with who becomes known as Red. From Adelaide, and the suffering Red endured becoming a Tether, gives both characters enough layers and background to not really consider either one of them villains - both are a victims of circumstances and letting 'a monster' within come alive to survive by any means necessary.

A big credit of what draws you into the movie, not just for a first watch but perhaps another to see the clues that weren't so obvious initially, is Lupita’s performance. She carries the brunt of not telegraphing the true story that’s hiding in plain sight and waiting almost two hours to be revealed. Through her, the story explores Peele’s metaphor of class and poverty – Adelaide has grown up privileged, while Red and fellow Tethers had grown up poor, abused, and without the basic opportunities life should afford them. They also act as a way of saying we each have something darker inside of us that shouldn't be isolated and cut off, but explored by how it fits into the bigger picture of the whole world - how we treat ourselves and each other. (Other allegories come to mind too, including nature vs nurture as well as the terrifying true stories of abandoned psychiatric institutions in the 1960s-1980s in the United States.)

Where Us gets tricky is that every time it sets up a notion about the plot surrounding the "clones", the bar moves. For the most part, the doppelgangers were a part of a national government project that was abandoned. Okay, within the concept of horror, this is realistic. Left neglected, feasting off of rabbits, and turning into the deranged version of their real selves with a leader to rally them together, the doppelgangers are primed to take over the world. A little less realistic but still acceptable. Then, the real plotholes or unanswered questions kick in – many of which are only alluded to by the film or by guessing what happened- how are millions of people deserted underground for at least a decade without discovery, any assistance or supervision (that we know of), that the doppelgangers are a variety of ages from kids to adults without any notion of when or how they’re created, that the Tethers are inconsistently dictated by the decisions and actions of their other real selves, etc.

Peele’s biggest secret is how the Tethers are going to rule the world, and yet most of the details that are actually revealed mostly in interviews – besides how they behave or act – are flimsy, at best. The story itself, between the beginning and final moments, feels as if it’s idling by to unveil the big twist, which explains as much as we need to understand while also glossing over details. For most of the film, Peele relies less on creating sustainable horror and more on a gamut of symbolic images showing doubles of everything (Jeremiah 11:11, a Frisbee landing on a towel of dots, twins, mirrors, reflections from glass, etc.), almost to the point that when you've seen the hundredth "double" of a prop or person, it's predictable. Some of his ideas, running the gamut of nods from pop culture to historical references, are featured brilliantly with the sets, costume design, and cinematography, while others felt too obvious and repetitive.

Even though Peele has already shown he's adept at comedy and suspense, the humor in Us also felt out of place. The most horrifying elements were easily Lupita N'yongo's chilling performance as Adelaide and Red. Her pain, trauma, and means of survival feels raw and truthful in every way. Whereas, the rest of the characters act as if they were in a horror parody more than a horror film (excluding Elizabeth Moss's brief supporting role). Every time the stakes kick in, the tremendous soundtrack swells and the family is set to run from their other halves trying to kill them. But then more jokes fill in the space between ‘scary’ scenes. Though Winston Duke was hysterical in carrying most of the humor, the jovial mood constantly pumped the breaks on the tension. If the story offered more of the third act for the first half of the movie, it would've felt more consistent as a horror feature.

Similar to the doppelgangers, Us works best in pieces instead of a whole. For the cast, the differences between their characters and their alternatives offer them a great opportunity to play an animalistic version of their real selves. The horror exists, but it doesn't tread as powerfully as it could. It’s admirable that Peele is more than willing to shake up the horror genre instead of letting fans rely on the typical slasher flicks that come around every Halloween. He hasn’t lost his touch as a horror director and is still just getting started. But his abstract ideas this time around bite off more than they chew.

Rating for the film: ★½☆☆
Have you seen Us? What do you think?

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