UsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/20/19 13:50:01
With his 2017 debut film, “Get Out,” writer-director Jordan Peele created a wild and audacious blend of horror and social satire that found him clearly tipping his hat to his artistic influences while at the same time spinning off into new and original directions. The result was a sensationally effective work that had the one-of-a-kind success that few filmmakers ever achieve, especially on the first project—raves from critics and audiences alike, a worldwide gross of over $250,000,000 and a much-deserved Oscar for Original Screenplay. The downside to all of this adulation is that it left Peele facing something more terrifying and soul-destroying than anything that he had created in”Get Out”—the task of trying to come up with a follow-up that could come close to the massively high expectations that he was now up against. This is not hyperbole on my part—when I sat down at the packed preview screening of his new film, “Us,” you could feel a genuine sense of excitement and expectation from the attendees, even the jaded people in the press rows, over what Peele had in store for them this time around.Does it live up to those expectations? Like “Get Out,” “Us” is another blend of horror, humor and social commentary that wears its influences and inspirations on its sleeve without ever simply copying them. The difference this time around is that while the screenplay for that earlier effort took an inspired idea and presented it in a smart and efficient manner that never once made a wrong step, Peele’s script this time around contains another great premise and develops it nicely through most of the running time but falters a bit in the closing scenes as it tries to wrap things up, especially in regards to a final narrative stinger that viewers will have seen coming from a mile away. And yet, the rest of the film is so ambitious in concept and effective in execution that it more than makes up for any slip-ups in the final minutes. Besides, what comes before is so wild and unnerving that some audiences may actually appreciate the more conventional nature of those final moments as a way of letting them settle bit before reentering a world that they may find themselves looking at a bit differently.
As “Us” is one of those films that is best appreciated by going into it knowing as little as possible about it—even the fairly enigmatic trailers gave away perhaps a little more than was necessary—I will be as brief and vague as can be in recounting the particulars. As the film opens, the Wilson family—mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), older daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex)—are heading to their summer home for a few days of rest and relaxation that will include a trip to the beach and boardwalk at Santa Cruz. Although the kids could care less about the particular excursion—Zora spends all of her time in a typical sullen teen huff glued to her phone and Jason is obsessed with trying to get a cheap magic trick to work—Adelaide is genuinely upset by the notion of going there for reasons far beyond one’s normal apprehension towards such excursions. Back in 1986, she visited that very same boardwalk as a little girl with her own parents and wandered off into a strange hall of mirrors exhibit where something happened that left her unable to speak for a long time afterwards.
Although uneasy about revisiting the site of her childhood trauma, Adelaide agrees to the excursions and they head off to spend a day of fun and sun with their sort-of friends, the wine-chugging conspicuously consuming Tylers. While Josh (Tim Heidecker is bragging about his stuff, Kitty (Elizabeth Moss) is talking about her plastic surgery and daughters Becca and Lindsay (Cali and Noelle Sheldon) are being insolent, Adelaide cannot shake the sense that something is just a bit off. After panicking when Jason wanders off for a few minutes, Adelaide insists that they pack it up and go back to the house. As the family attempts to settle in for the night, the power goes out and if that weren’t disconcerting enough, there appears to be a family standing silently in the driveway staring vacantly at the house. While Adelaide tries to call the cops, Gabe tries to scare them away with a combination of macho swagger and a baseball bat. Needless to say, it doesn’t work and it is at this point that I will say no more about what happens from this point on.
Like its predecessor, “Us” is a wildly ambitious work that tries to fuse together scares, laughs and a lesson regarding the darker aspects of everyday American life that people ignore at their peril. For the most part, he succeeds with a tale that takes class warfare—the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots—and fuses it to a seemingly standard home invasion saga with inspired results. His social commentary is as biting as ever—the scenes involving the increasingly loathsome Tylers are especially effective in that respect—and as the story progresses, it becomes deeper and more thoughtful until you begin to realize that even though the antagonists, each equipped with a large pair of scissors, are terrifying in their brutality, their viciousness has a point behind it that is at least worth considering. For the most part, this is great and wholly original stuff—there is not even the remote sense that Peele is trying to cash in on the success of “Get Out” with a simple and lazy variation—and when it does stumble a bit towards the end, the flaws are borne of ambition rather than laziness. After more or less explaining both the menace and the motives behind what was happening, I wished that Peele had spent a little more time exploring them both than he does here. There is also a final title bit—maybe a test run for what Peele is planning for his “Twilight Zone” revival—that isn’t bad so much as it is predictable, arguably the only thing in the film that a lot of viewers will see coming. Again, this isn’t bad necessarily but after the startling degree of originality preceding it, it just doesn’t quite have the punch that it thinks it has.
If Peele’s work as a screenwriter here doesn’t quite match his previous achievement, his work as a director this time around is even better. Two of the hardest film genres to succeed at are comedy and horror—although they are usually regarded as inferior to more sophisticated dramas, it requires expert timing and style in order to get viewers to laugh or scream—and Peele, who obviously got his start in comedy and who is clearly a student of horror, once again demonstrates a stunning facility for both. Instead of relying on cheap shock tactics in order to get a rise out of viewers, he is more interested in creating a slow sense of gradually approaching menace in which the pieces come together so quietly and gracefully that when the scares do occur, Peele has more than earned them. That is not to say that this is some kind of Val Lewton-like exercise in pure restraint—there is a good deal of violence and bloodshed as well but while things do get sticky, the more gruesome stuff is quite effective without ever coming across as gratuitous. He also uses humor quite well here as well, both in the social satire on display in the early scenes and the comedic bits that he effectively deploys in order to allow audiences to let off a little steam without descending into camp. He also get great performances from his entire cast, especially Lupita Nyong’o, who delivers perhaps her finest work to date in a turn that, in a perfect world, would be a front-runner for every acting award imaginable.In the wake of the success of “Get Out,” many observers were quick to anoint Jordan Peele as “the new Hitchcock,” a title that has been invoked in the film industry approximately as much as “the new Dylan” has in the music industry. With “Us,” Peele shows that he is no mere pretender to someone else’s throne but a unique talent in his own right who will almost certainly be looked upon as a source of inspiration from future generations of filmmakers. This is a great example of contemporary pop filmmaking—the kind of film that proves that a smart and original concept can still somehow exist in a cinematic universe otherwise dominated by superhero sagas and unnecessary sequels, remakes and retreads. His work here confirms that he is the real deal and, until further notice, his future projects as a filmmaker should be looked up as major events.
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