Us is Jordan Peele’s second feature film as a director, but you don’t need me to tell you that. You just need to watch it. It bears all the hallmarks of Sophomore Entry-itis. This is a film from a man who so desperately wants to do something different from his breakout debut that he ends up not quite sure what he wants to do at all. What struck me as interesting about Us, though, is that it doesn’t lose itself in the shuffle of a million disparate ideas as so many second features do. If anything, you could call it under-ambitious. Peele follows the layered social metaphors of Get Out with a thriller that doesn’t have a whole lot on its mind.
That’s not to say that Us has nothing to say, of course. Its most intriguing notion is that of the collective American unconscious, the dark truths about our violent past that we so easily bury and selectively forget. In the first scene, a young Adelaide (played as an adult by Lupita Nyong’o) has a terrifying encounter in a boardwalk attraction called “Shaman’s Vision Quest,” complete with the head of a stereotypical Native American looming above the door. When she revisits the boardwalk with her family as an adult, the attraction has been revised to “Merlin’s Vision Quest,” and the Native American head is now an inoffensive wizard. The imagery that recalled violence and genocide is gone, but the structure remains. The film opens with text describing the miles upon miles of abandoned tunnels crisscrossing underneath the country. We don’t learn the plot significance of them for a while, but that text haunts the film’s first two acts, never letting us forget that something horrific may be just underneath our feet, and that we may have put it there.
I was disappointed by how it fails to tie this into its characters’ personal dramas, though. A far cry from recent horror breakouts like The Babadook and Hereditary (neither of which I like more than Us, to be clear) which were entirely focused on the inner lives of their characters, Us is much more concerned with its grand narrative design. Us has a world. It has lore. Lore to spare. By the film’s final act, we’re getting more exposition than storytelling, and absolutely nothing about its characters. For a film about people encountering twisted reflections of themselves, Us has little to nothing to say about who they are. It has the most to offer about Adelaide, but that comes in a silly final twist that muddles its themes considerably. Who are Gabe, Zora, Jason? Who are Kitty and Josh? What are their insecurities? What are their strengths? What do they love, what do they fear? They have personality in spades, but we’re starved for personage. How does a film with this premise drop the ball so hard on characterization?
The performances, at least, are outstanding all around. All the principal actors have to play their doubles as well, and they all do marvelous work finding both the familiar and the uncanny in their second performances. Nyong’o is the obvious MVP, as Adelaide and doppelganger Red. Adelaide is all nerves, righteous fury, and eventually pity for the twins she and her family are pitted against. Red is the real standout work, though. Her voice is chillingly strained, struggling to get each syllable out, as though she’s a creature not meant to speak at all. Her physicality is just as strange and scary and wrong, twitchy yet deliberate, like she’s never seen another human being before.
Intriguingly, Peele chose not to have the actors share traits across the doppelganger performances. None of the clones we see seem to have anything in common with their originals. They’re less fractured reflections of the main characters than distinct individuals forced to share someone else’s appearance. They don’t have many commonalities with each other, either. Aside from the strained shouting they communicate with and their identical outfits, the clones’ movements and behaviors are entirely different from one to the next. Even their names are all unique, bearing no relation to the names of the people they resemble. It’s an intriguing direction in which to take this premise.
And that’s about as playful as the film gets. It’s a pretty straightforward slasher for most of its runtime. That’s not a bad thing, though, when the setpieces are this well-executed. The film’s second act is a thrilling ride from face-off to face-off, each one distinct to its particular pair. Young Jason and his doppelganger Pluto have a silent, tense staring match in a closet. Gabe and his double Abraham take swings at each other in a small boat on a dark lake. Zora is chased through the streets by the relentless Umbrae. Things culminate bloodily at Josh and Kitty’s house, and while I won’t spoil what goes down, it’s a gleefully violent spectacle.
There’s a lot to like about Us. It acquits itself handsomely for a while as a straight-up one-night-in-hell home invasion terror. Peele has great talent for spatial dynamics, and the flair for comic/horror timing that served him so well in Get Out is on full display here. But in other areas, Us is oddly shoddy and disappointingly shaggy. Although it’s well-paced, the editing never quite finds the right rhythm, especially whenever the family splits up. Peele has a handful of strong, evocative images in his head, but only a handful. It’s an okay movie, but never quite a genuinely good one. It’s too compromised in too many places. Just when you think it’s about to cohere, it flits off in a new direction. Always searching, never finding. Us is a Second Feature through and through. The most disappointing thing about it is how predictable its failures are.