Movie Review: Us [SXSW]
Jordan Peele‘s newest movie Us is a haunting horror film by a director with a lot to say. Premiering at the SXSW film festival, Peele was in attendance to introduce the thriller which presents the Wilson family, lead by Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke). They return to a summer vacation at her parents’ home near Santa Cruz.
As we find out, she had some sort of traumatic experience getting lost in a creepy boardwalk attraction while there as a child, and after returning to the same beach near there while on vacation she begins to experience a lot of anxiety and wants to leave. At that point a family of shadowy figures appears in their driveway–murderous doppelgangers–and if you know anything more than that it is literally a spoiler.
What comes after is one of the scariest and most fun thrillers in recent memory. Peele shows that his visual sense and pacing and director’s eye is incredibly sophisticated.
But it’s Nyong’o who really sets herself apart here. She should immediately be the top of everyone’s Oscar list for Best Actress. We’ve seen her be great before, but what she does here is beyond any of that. What she does here on screen is indescribable without spoiling the film, but it is so nuanced and layered, it will take multiple viewings to fully get the depths of how good she truly is. There are seeds planted early on that blossom late in the third act. There are some just straight up intense moments that are an immediate gut punch. And there are moments you will want to revisit once you know the entire scope of the film to watch the additional bits she is adding to her performance to appreciate what she (and Peele) have done.
Also, completely forget everything you thought you knew from Get Out. Don’t let your views or expectations from that film color in any way your ideas about this film or what it is. First, let’s just go to Peele’s own words in how he describes his works:
While Peele tweeted this in response to Get Out being nominated for the Golden Globe as a “Comedy or Musical,” and this was a sort of puckish response to the “controversy” over its classification, he’s very clearly saying something important: that film was about real life.
Us is just a straight-up horror/thriller, unapologetically so, because there literally isn’t anything wrong with that. Peele’s point is well, taken, though: while many horror films have at their base some sort of social commentary (Romero’s zombie movies, The Purge films, etc) that’s not necessarily a needed ingredient.
I kept waiting for there to be something more. I wanted the social commentary. I wanted to know what the said about our moment in 2019, or more about what it meant to be black in America. But this isn’t that film and going in with such expectations and trying to put Peele into that same box is as much of a folly as expecting Get Out to be funny because of Peele’s previous success in comedy.
If anything, the social commentary of Us is not in the film at all (although there are a few lines and bits worth deconstructing). But just because the actors are black, and the director and writer is black, it doesn’t mean that we are going to get a movie about black identity with social justice themes. (Although, it’s hard to imagine many other films being able to get away with violent murder sprees set to NWA’s “F@#$ Tha Police”) Sometimes a thriller is just a thriller.
The social commentary of Us may also simply be that isn’t a true meritocracy in Hollywood. Duke and Nyong’o are so. good. here. but are often relegated to supporting roles in other films. Not that we didn’t love them in Black Panther, and it’s not like we didn’t recognize how amazing Nyong’o was in her breakthrough role in Twelve Years a Slave, and we’ve loved her in Star Wars, but it’s clear that their acting chops go for miles beyond this.
What we get is a film could have been cast with anyone. Any other director might have filled this with white actors, approved by Hollywood bean counters who have decided that that met the requisite amount of star power for the film. Two decades ago, this would’ve been Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfieffer in What Lies Beneath.
Instead the casting of black actors is a testament to the universality of the film and that in a truly colorblind society, the complexion of the actors would matter so incredibly little. Let’s hope the box office agrees, showing that black-led films are a great investment for the big studios (not sure why there’s any doubt after recent dominance by Marvel, Star Wars, but yet, here we are)
It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s close. It’s not Get Out levels of genius with layered social commentary, nor does it need to be. But like Get Out, which hit the top of my best films of 2017, it serves as an early high water mark for greatness for the year. It’s a great film and one of the scariest things you’ll see in theaters anytime soon.
4.25 out of 5 stars