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Us (2019); And Why I’m Not a Fan

March 23, 2019

I’m attempting to decipher my current rambling mind about my first impression on Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated sophomore film, Us. I almost feel at a loss for words. I have so much to stay about this but nothing is coming to the surface in one cohesive thought. It’s just words bumbling around into one another attempting to latch on to what’s familiar enough to sound cohesive. I didn’t not like it, but damn I didn’t enjoy it either and that makes me sad. Insatiable even. I’m craving a release from the tension I built for Us, even when I proactively told myself before—and during it—to curb my expectations: be present, witness what’s unfolding without attachment…what I try to remind myself in basic day to day existence. Still, I couldn’t help but want more from the entire experience, all the way up through to the credits (which btw big ups to the font designer there).

Now I don’t think the desire I had for more is unreasonable. Peele is a competent and intelligent writer-director with great instincts. These instincts are prevalent throughout his career and surfaces on occasion throughout Us, but there were multiple scenes that forced me to confront the fact that maybe the hype surrounding his talent was a bit premature. During a particular scene in which a car is used for blocking a mirrored cat and mouse chase, the camera moves slowly with the showdown and a character stops to crouch down disappearing out of sight from her mouse while we anticipate the anxiety that should build up from this creepy moment. Yet, somehow the scene progresses without any terror or fraction of tension due to Peele’s subsequent camera angles and directorial choices for how the scene plays out. In fact, most of those instincts for capturing a truly effective and scary moment are there on the surface but they indulge themselves too much in homage or symbolism that they lack any personal defined characteristics themselves and becomes void of tension.

Many scenes play out far too long to truly be effective. When the slasher fans in the audience are treated to gory moments and kills, Peele only gives us quick glimpses promptly and consistently cutting away before the moment of impact. This isn’t a problem in the hands of director who knows how to make an effective gory scene without excessive gore (take moments of the chainsaw scene in Brian De Palma’s Scarface for instance). Instead, Peele’s haphazard cuts and shifts from moments of impact or heightened action pushes the viewer further away from the action, its severity, and the ultimate danger of the Wilson family.

This isn’t helpful to the story considering by the 2nd act of the film, much of the steam for truly fearing for their lives is lost as that equation gets thrown out the window. By the 3rd act, once we leave the home of the family for a different house, Peele’s use of comedy bulldozes through any moments of potential horror or even thriller. I never once truly felt that the family was in danger for their lives. Half the time they don’t even seem truly worried (see the annoying “who’s driving” scene for reference). The Wilson’s seem impervious to traditional fear and reservation about the dire situation around them, and Peele’s script has subsequent action happening at random, continually shifting the cinematic world and its own reality in the process. By the film’s climax, Peele weakly attempts to tighten the loose threads that are connecting motives and unveiling motivations but he does so with enough laxness to leave room for audience interpretation rather than using the film itself to explain the story.

In fact, my favorite part of the film was the after-movie discussion with my group of friends, where we asked questions, traded interpretations and, for me, fumbled over expressing my disappointment. I enjoyed hearing the answers to my questions which constantly made me ahh at the light bulb going off. But for every answer, there were dozens of other questions: “Well if this, then why that?” “Well yeah, but how?” or “But if that why not?” and definitely “wait, they’re doing what now?” For a good two hours after seeing this movie, I questioned myself… “am I dumb? Did I just not get it? Did having a five-month writer’s block make me forget how to analyze a movie? Did I really not get that piece of symbolism?” The jury’s out if the answer to these are all yes, because possibly. But the more I ruminate over Us, the more I see less of a sharp, creative think piece of a film and more of a bunch of great ideas and thought starters that never develops past bullet points. By the end of the film, I felt like I had M. Night Shyamalan whiplash. The last chunk of Us feels rushed, clumsy even, and almost like a “gotcha” moment. Just because certain elements foreshadowing where we end up, doesn’t mean that it makes for a cohesive story and definitely not a horrific or even thrilling one.

Regardless, the few elements that are well executed are done extremely well, particularly the original music by Michael Abels and some of Peele’s most stunning shots and use of body doubles. I can’t possibly end this piece without discussing the brilliance of Lupito Nyong’o’s performance. Her talent is pure and genuine, one that just naturally seeps out of her. Nyong’o’s skill reminds audiences that she is a thespian tried and true who can conjure emotion and new personas right before our eyes. Watching her in two wildly distinct roles interacting creates perfect book ends of her range as an actor. She’s wonderful and steals every scene she’s in. Nevertheless, while Winston Duke is charming with some of the funnier moments and the children are impressive newcomers that I’d love to see more from, Peele honestly wastes their potential by relegating them to being props and a means for Nyong’o to shine.

I’m always happy to see black faces on screen in varying genres and God bless Peele for being a black man creating a new vision, but I refuse to grade this movie on a “curve.” I know Peele has the potential to be great based on Get OutKeanu, and Key and Peele, but I’m very worried about his ability to handle other properties with care, like Candyman. My biggest fear after watching Us (and no shade or pun intended with that, just genuine concern) is that Peele won’t have the chops needed to make the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot a needed addition to the cannon. Perhaps he got too much freedom with Us to explore an extremely complicated idea. Maybe no one reiterated that to do that successfully, he you should focus more time on creating that world and not staying with the faux-home invasion angle. Perhaps this is just a sophomore slump that will progresses with his future endeavors. Either way, I thought Us was a poorly constructed horror film with very few redeeming qualities. I’m grateful for my brother’s quip when debriefing the film: “you’re not crazy. That movie sucked.”

SPOILERS: Below are a list of questions that I had while watching. Feel free to answer in the comments!

Who’s in control of this underground bunker? How do these clones exist and who’s taking care of them? Are they all evil or just soulless? If that’s the case, why did adult Red have love for her kids? What’s not stopping them from killing each other? Why harm themselves (as Red Elisabeth Moss does) yet have the capacity to work together and hold hands? Why did Red have to be evil and smile those creepy little smiles to let you know she’s the evil twin? Wouldn’t it have been more effective if it was simply clones just wanting to live a new life, no good/evil attached like in Ex Machina? The Tyler family already got killed, so why kill others who aren’t them or try to? No one else did that, did they? Aren’t all the clones just supposed to kill “themselves”? Who were they trying to prove something to, the government… if they’re killing all of their doubles? Was it drugs they were being given? How did young Red even find out the upper ground? Do they all just know they’re clones? Why did Jason walking backwards cause his clone to do that into the fire? Are all clones subject to mimicry? Where did they get those scissors???

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