★★★ / ★★★★
Although the final reveal is likely to be apparent during the first act to the more seasoned fans of the horror genre, Jordan Peele’s “Us” remains to be an entertaining flick with curious ideas about doppelgängers and imagined goings-on right under our feet. It is well-paced, suspenseful and thrilling at times, and there is care put into its images, particularly during an early sequence in which we asked to follow a little girl making her way from the loud and busy attractions of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk toward a creepy, silent house of mirrors that directly faces the beach. This traumatic event propels the film’s plot.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide, a former dancer whose past trauma continues to impact her every day life. She is on summer vacation with her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) at their family beach house which just so happens to be only minutes away from the boardwalk. A series of bizarre coincides compels Adelaide to believe eventually that something terrible, perhaps even her greatest fear, is about to occur. Build-up is one of the picture’s greatest strengths but not all elements introduced fit perfectly into the narrative.
I enjoyed Peele’s active use of the camera. Even when a scene is taking place at the beach in the middle of a crowd, it pushes the viewer to feel uneasy. Despite a beautiful scenery, notice its generous use of uncomfortable close-ups. During tracking shots, it gives the impression that we are seeing the images from the perspective of a creep or stalker. There is even detachment in the content of conversations between people who are supposed to be friends. Clearly, the sequence is designed to make the audience feel as though an external force is certain to disrupt a peaceful and happy occasion. And so we are on toes. We anticipate that something will happen. Peele dances gleefully with the tease. He knows the difference between suspense and thrill.
Particularly glaring to me is in the way the family members interact with one another. I never had a sense that the Wilsons are a real family. I considered the acting. I watched closely as Nyong’o and Duke navigate their way through their characters’ disagreements. I observed Joseph and Alex’ connection as siblings and the manner in which their characters relate to their parents. It does not feel like a convincing family. It comes across scripted, fake, forced at times. I wondered if a few more rounds of rehearsal might have helped to solidify a level of believability.
And then it occurred to me: Perhaps the disconnect is part of the point. What social commentary, if any, is being broached regarding a black family whose story is being told in a horror film of a sizable budget? What is it saying about our fear of The Other in the context of a mainstream and commercial project assuming that the viewer is not black nor an American? It’s curious to think about. Then another layer: The opening title card claims that there are numerous underground railroads and tunnels across the United States. Their function is mostly unknown.
While I appreciated its ideas, most of them do not get in the way of telling a horror-thriller. There are powerful images like close-ups of scissors being used as a threat… and yet there is not one close-up shot of the blades piercing the flesh. This is fresh because too many generic horror pictures appear to be interested only in showing off gore, practical effects, or (the very worst) CGI blood. As for its undercooked ideas, particularly the doppelgängers’ national plan, a few more passes of the script might have provided us stronger, better answers.