By Zeke Wallis
I was so excited during those opening seconds: just a TV, but damn, it was stylish. Through a short series of clips, it established the date (1986), the location (Santa Cruz), our protagonist (reflected in the screen) and a central motif with ease and flare…
Only for the very next shot to repeat half that information as superimposed text, like the film had immediately lost confidence in itself and in its audience. My boyfriend and I exchanged a look then and there that said, ‘Do you also have a bad feeling about this?’
I can’t deny that Us is stylish. The soundtrack is good, the cinematography is consistently great, and the performances are mostly fantastic. Lupita Nyong’o is a worthy star and Winston Duke is likeable and entertaining (both in and out of character. I love you, Mr Duke). There is a good film in here somewhere – Jordan Peele has already demonstrated his considerable skill as a director and that talent continues to shine through in moments like the mesmerising dance sequence. The initial home invasion scene was also a highlight. It was nail-bitingly tense and reminded me so much of Funny Games (1997) that I was not at all surprised when I learned that Peele got his cast to watch Haneke’s harrowing masterpiece in preparation for filming.
Unfortunately, the ridiculous story is never quite justified by the commentary it attempts to make. The twist, which my partner and I guessed before the film even hit the halfway mark, fails to deliver. This becomes doubly (pun intended) frustrating when compared with that emotionally devastating moment at the end of Get Out, where it looked like the innocent protagonist was about to be arrested (or worse). The end of Get Out gave the audience a small taste of the dread a black person in America can feel facing a justice system that values the livelihoods of racist cops over the lives of black citizens. This moment would not have been as effective without the tightness and precision with which the film unfolded. Peele controlled his narrative in Get Out beautifully, revealing new information and ratcheting up the tension at just the right pace to keep his audience enraptured.
Us is not so disciplined. Notice how I said the acting is mostly fantastic? I qualified this praise because at one point during the aforementioned home invasion scene, when the family all face their doubles on the couch, I was distracted by the son (Evan Alex) smiling in the background. At best it was a nervous grin that failed to convey an adequate level of fear; at worst the young actor was supressing laughter and for some reason, instead of filming another take, they decided to keep it and hope nobody noticed.
It’s details like this that form the cracks in Us’ otherwise polished surface – cracks that reveal that the story is not a cryptic metaphor, but a confused mess. It’s as if Peele had a series of great ideas and when he couldn’t figure out how to fit them all together neatly, instead of doing the sensible thing and bringing another writer on board, he chose to throw them all in anyway. I don’t mind a far-fetched story if the film in question is technically accomplished and intelligent. I can even forgive outright nonsense if it seems self-aware and serves a greater conceptual purpose. I wish I could say Us does this. A story of subterranean doppelgängers is a brilliant way to remind viewers that people just like them are suffering needlessly, right under their very noses. The naïve belief that progressive change can be achieved through futile, performative gestures like holding hands deserves to be challenged, and with a few (admittedly major) changes to the script, Us could have hit its mark. There’s so much potential here. With a little more bite, a little more care and precision, and a lot of rewrites, this could have been a more than worthy follow up to Get Out. Alas, like the tethered people, it’s merely a poor shadow.