Midway through Us, NWA’s “F*** tha Police” is invoked to brilliant comedic/satiric effect. A track by a contemporaneous rap group, though, perhaps provides a better gloss on Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated sophomore effort (following 2017’s Get Out): Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
Helmed by an Important Director who has previously demonstrated a knack for delivering a thrilling plot and probing message, this film is one we are predisposed to like. According to reviewers (by Metacritic metrics, Us has garnered “universal acclaim”), it’s one we should like. But the term “masterpiece” has been bandied about much too facilely, making such film critics sound more like hype-meisters than insightful commentators.
Get Out, a riveting mystery with a horrifying reveal, expertly explores the subject of race relations in America. In Us, the social commentary (concerning the uprising of the underclass) is much less coherent and more clumsily presented. It’s also somewhat disconcerting, since the victims of the sinister doubles here (most graphically, the drunken, obnoxious couple and bratty twins next door) are all conspicuously Caucasian. Maybe Poole felt that the film already depicted plentiful black-on-black violence (as the African American protagonists are menaced by, and fight back against, their doppelgangers), but the demographics of deadly demise in Us are nonetheless eyebrow-raising.
The hype machine for the film also has been busy generating Oscar buzz for Lupita Nyong’o for her dual role of heroic mother Adelaide and villainous revolutionary Shadow. But, again, I’m not buying it (no more so than I did the overvaluing of Toni Collette’s acting in Hereditary last year). Not that Nyong’o doesn’t give a fine performance; there’s just nothing extraordinary or distinctive about it. Audiences have seen the portrayal of traumatization, not to mention the stop-at-nothing defense of one’s family, countless times before. And while the antagonist role might naturally make for more memorable characterization, Nyong’o’s Shadow is a pale effort. Her croaking whisper comes across as more hokey than horripilating, more gimmicky than plot-motivated in any convincing way.
What frustrates me most about Us is that film gets off to such a promising start. Following an atmospheric prologue (leading to an uncanny encounter in a seaside hall-of-mirrors attraction) the action flashes forward to the present day. Peele adeptly establishes his characters (the nuclear quartet of the Wilson family, who are all likeable and lifelike) and sets the stage for the coming disruption of their summer vacation. The home invasion–one of the most harrowing incidents of its kind since A Clockwork Orange–comprises the strongest part of the film. The situation is wonderfully creepy in and of itself, and the suspense keeps increasing with the cuts back and forth between the Wilsons’ individual struggles with their respective doppelgangers. Besides being gripped by the protagonists’ peril, the viewer is stirred by curiosity: who/what are these homicidal lookalikes (dubbed the “Tethered”) terrorizing the Wilsons, and where have they come from?
Unfortunately, much like Paul Tremblay’s acclaimed 2018 home-invasion novel, The Cabin at the End of the World–Poole’s film fails to pay off on its intriguing set-up. The explanation (provided via a pair of unsatisfying infodumps) for the Tethered’s origins/motivations is downright absurd. This story of weird experiment and national conspiracy (I won’t get into more specifics here, for fear of spoilers) opens up plot holes the size of the underground tunnels featured in the film. While critiquing the plot dynamics of Us, I cannot fail to note that the climactic twist is forecast from the opening scene, and proves neither shocking nor mind-blowing.
There are elements of the film that I truly enjoyed, such as the allusions to Blade Runner (Adelaide’s daughter Zora shares a name with one of the replicants Deckard retires, and the somersaulting neighbor girls mimic Pris’s android gymnastics). Kudos, too, to Poole for his extensive Gothicizing of the Hands Across America event from the 1980’s. Us also features a killer score, which helps heighten the tension and darken the mood throughout.
In the end, though, the parts do not add up to as grand a sum as might have been achieved. Straining to make social commentary, the film approaches pretentiousness, and its determination to embed subtext ultimately subverts narrative logic. No doubt, this is a movie (apropos of its double theme) that will be better appreciated following a second viewing. But after the disappointing experience of our first relationship, I can’t say I’m eager to give Us another chance.