The 2017 Academy Award-winning film for Best Original Screenplay, Get Out, is the kind of movie so good, that if one’s friends dares to claim that it is overrated, one then considers finding friends with better taste. Get Out is a once-in-a-generation movie whose best-ever return-on-investment (cost to produce film vs profit) sets a standard so staggeringly lofty, that it might have been understandable had its visionary walked away while still on top.
Not to be intimidated by expectations, Jordan Peele returns with another film in the horror genre, Us. Nothing personal against Daniel Kaluuya (who has been in demand lately, no doubt because of his protagonist role) or the likes of Allison Williams, but Peele now comes armed with Academy Award-winning Lupita Nyong’o, accompanied by Winston Duke (also in demand since Black Panther). With the noteworthy talent upgrade in Us, everyone and their momma wants to know if Peele’s first cinematic experience was a flash in the pan, or a sign of things to come.
Violence: Blood in Us serves the purpose of conveying to the audience that injury or death has taken place, rather than aim for audience disgust. Therefore, the amount of on-screen blood is tame for a film in the horror genre. That said, people will be teed-off with baseball bats, pummelled with golf clubs, smacked in the face with an iron skillet, bludgeoned with a fancy paperweight, and contorted by tree. Scissors are the stabbing weapon of choice, and several characters do die in their own pools of blood.
The visual spectacle of blood pales in comparison to the gurgling sounds of those who refuse to die as they choke on their own blood. Us capitalizes on audience expectation of convention without showing it, demonstrating that it is possible to elicit terror without being macabre.
Language/Crude Humor: Captain America’s trend-setting “Language!” manifests here in quasi-humorous dialogue where a child casually swears, and their parents immediately correct them. Later, “**** the Police” by the NWA plays during the entire length of a setpiece. Prior to this song, there are about four f-bombs and a couple of ****s; after this song, counting profanities is an exercise in futility.
Alcohol and Drug Use: It is easier for me to say that “I got 5 on It,” is a song similar to Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” than for me to explain the message behind these songs (this work has already been done, and is ongoing). Notwithstanding, one character refers to “I Got 5 on It” as a song that is not about drugs but is about dope, and pairs this with a command to his kids to not do drugs.
Later, a different family is shown to use alcohol as a coping mechanism for their awful marriage.
Sexuality: Some rather…gifted young ladies appear on-screen at the beach. In a separate scene, a husband fails at suggestively luring his wife into bed.
One character discloses that they were (repeatedly) raped, but they do not use the “r” word.
Spirituality: Jeremiah 11:11 is written on a sign as an alternative to the infamous “the end is nigh”:
Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.
One character mentions that their liberation is a blessing from God.
Positive Message: Sometimes, we need not look toward the Othered, assuming them to be instigators of the threat of violence; Us encourages viewers to look inward.
Us begins in 1986 with a dysfunctional couple taking their daughter to a beachfront amusement park for her birthday. Despite their intentions, they ultimately neglect their daughter while occupied by their own interests. This unsupervised child begins to wander on her own, eventually losing herself in a house of mirrors. The experience leaves her too traumatized to speak at all, let alone about what she encounters, creating another rift between her parents.
Us then shifts to the “present day” where the Wilsons, a middle-class all-American family consisting of Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora (Shahidi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide is content to hang out at the family’s lakeshore property, but Gabe would rather go to the beach. She relents, and it is there where her family pretends to tolerate the friendship of (another) dysfunctional family, the Tylers. In her efforts to ignore Kitty Tyler (Elizabeth Moss), Adelaide loses track of Jason. In an uncharacteristic fit of paranoia, she frantically sprints around the shore, finding Jason shortly thereafter. Adelaide then demands that they leave and return to the lakeshore property. This time, Gabe relents.
They arrive and put the kids to bed. At this time, Adelaide, still somewhat panicked, tries to convince Gabe to leave, though he is too occupied with making himself comfortable enough to invite her to bed for some adult entertainment. But she is serious! The film capitalizes on this tension by queuing the old-fashioned motif of the lights going out, and it is here—not in Gabe’s bed—where the magic happens: as Jason states in the trailer, a family stands in the driveway. The obvious question is, what do they want? Read on to determine if it is worth finding out.
Those who delight in tracking symbolism, tropes, and metaphors will get their money’s worth out of Us, because Peele burdens the film with the stuff, from Jason wearing a t-shirt of Jaws while on the beach, to artwork indicating an evolution of a girl to a woman, or mother to daughter, to Nightmare on Elm Street-themed gloves and burn scars, to the renowned NWA’s “**** the Police” playing as foreground music during a scene when the authorities are needed but are nowhere to be found. I am certain that cinephiles are already writing their long-form essays asking pertinent questions such as, “Why did she know?”; “How did he find out?”; “What really happened in that scene?; or “Are those [orange] jumpsuits indicative of the Prison Industrial Complex?” Surely, Us will go down as a movie generating prolonged conversations with much more verve than the braggadocious Kitty and her face tuck.
However, a few problems prevent Us from achieving the accolades of Peele’s magnum opus, Get Out. While Us adheres to the expectation that everything Peele shows his audience is relevant to the film’s subject matter, I cannot overlook that the movie takes at least thirty minutes of an “episode” of The Wilsons before any explicitly real threat appears on-screen. Those looking forward to Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot will want him to tighten up that editing. As I restlessly shifted in my chair fighting off boredom in frustration during a scene where the Wilsons bond during a car ride home from the beach, my wife returns from relieving her bladder of Sprite and asks me what she missed during that time. Answer: absolutely nothing. Several other scenes require the suspension of disbelief for the ultimate reveal to work effectively; the payoff for this does not override the lingering feeling of inefficiency.
While I appreciate Peele hookin’ Winston Duke up given his recent popularity among the ladies for being “thicc bae” for his role as M’Baku in Black Panther, he is out of place here, especially because of his inability to drop his Caribbean accent (Duke is from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago). I harp on this because if we expect the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Idris Elba to drop their accents, Duke should be able to do the same if he wants to be remembered among that caliber of acting, and especially if I am supposed to believe that his character, Gabe, went to Howard as his HBCU gear indicates.
I would have suspended disbelief if another character dropped a line about Gabe’s heritage to explain his voice, but I recoiled in a cringe when he threatens the doppelganger family that there is gonna’ be problems. I never believed him to be a threat, but a gentle giant. Nevertheless, Peele recognized both the trope of horror being most “effective” when a (virgin) blonde white woman is being chased by the boogeyman and he conforms to this the best he can by hobbling Gabe early in the film. From M’Baku to imbecile, the less time Duke spent on the screen as Gabe, and the more time as his alter ego, Abraham, the better.
On the complete opposite end of the acting spectrum, Lupita—as she is referenced with fondness—puts on the best performance that I have ever seen. She loves hard. She moms hard. She cries hard. She despairs hard. She fights hard. Though she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave, I would prefer to see her win for her dynamism here. Never before have I seen this kind of talent on display, which is critical, because the film requires that she succeed in her role. Though she cannot save Duke, she compliments child actors Shahidi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex. The latter two are surprisingly believable as a brother and sister tandem, and they hold their own as both Wilson children and also Umbrae and Pluto.
By the sheer success of Get Out alone, Us is going to be a financial success and a critical one too. It is a good film, but good in the way that I breathe a sigh of relief to report that BlackKklansman clears the hurdle of being good enough to justify its existence even if it were not attached to big names like Spike Lee, and now, Jordan Peele. The conversations concerning his subversive and subliminal messaging will be rigorous, and I look forward to them, but steep is the drop from fundamental cinema perfection to Us, is the kind of movie that is worth watching more for its cultural capital rather than its laborious entertainment value.