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Us

Back in 2017, Jordan Peele was still primarily known as a comedian, due in no small part to his impressive body of work alongside Keegan Michael-Key. The two of them even made a film together, Keanu, with the explicit purpose of serving as a vehicle for their brand of comedy. This is a huge reason — but certainly not the only one — why Get Out totally blindsided everyone.

Get Out was a trailblazing movie in a lot of ways. It was a POC-centric movie with a lot of potent and creative statements about society at large; it blended elements of horror, comedy, suspense thriller, and all sorts of other genres; this debut director was making a film that didn’t look remotely like anything he’d made previously; and what the hell is anyone supposed to glean from that title? For all of these reasons, Get Out was a marvelous film that delivered so many great new ideas we never knew we needed, and it was borderline impossible to sell beyond vague word-of-mouth. This is exactly the kind of movie that gets a lot of nominations and strong awards buzz, but the chances of it actually winning anything are DOA.

So here’s Us, which was very clearly made and marketed as a straight-up horror. But because this was a movie written/directed/produced by Peele, we could be certain that this would be a POC-oriented work of surreal cinema with innovative sociopolitical commentary. Basically, everything that worked with Get Out, but easier to sell and explain.

And by that measure, it… uh… worked?

To be clear, this is absolutely the most superbly crafted horror film I’ve seen in years. The lighting, sound design, editing, pacing… it’s all immaculate. Of course it helps that as a successful comedian, Peele has a remarkable sense of timing, with a preternatural knack for knowing precisely where the scares, lulls, reveals, and comic relief should land for maximum impact. I was especially fond of how the movie explicitly rejects jump scares, with a two-part gag near the start and end of the picture.

Then there’s the cast. It’s already common knowledge that the main characters are being attacked by their monstrous doppelgangers, so of course every actor involved had to play two completely different and opposing roles. They all acquit themselves beautifully, but Lupita Nyong’o turns in phenomenal work here. Of course anyone who’s been paying attention would know that Nyong’o has already done great work as a supporting player, but this movie is proof positive that she needs to be elevated to the A-list ASAP. Kudos are also due to Madison Curry, the new discovery who plays the film’s resident Creepy Little Girl with aplomb.

And this is where things start to break down. Beyond this point, going deeper into details without getting into spoilers will be exceedingly difficult. But let’s try it anyway.

This was very clearly built from the ground up to serve as an illustration of the conflict between the haves and have-nots. Not an unusual subject in cinema, but not a thing seen very often in horror cinema. (Daybreakers is the only example that comes anywhere close, to my memory.) Moreover, most films tend to *ahem* color-code where our characters are on the sociopolitical ladder, deliberately drawing attention to a system that disproportionately screws over people of color. But as a POC-centric movie about an upper-middle-class family of black people, this movie is considerably more subtle.

It’s not an easy thing to describe (especially without spoilers), but it could probably be best summed up as “There but for the grace of God.” Have you ever seen someone panhandling and/or homeless on the street who was your age and racial background? Someone who might have been a high school classmate or something? Or hell, maybe you have that one family black sheep who fell on hard times and can never seem to get back out.

Every such case is a harsh reminder that it could be you out on the streets. Imagine seeing yourself in that beggar’s place, knowing that you’re only one bad day away from being that person, and maybe it could’ve been your entire life if you were born on a different street or to a different family. Moreover, imagine if you were that beggar, seeing yourself in one of the many faces that hurry by while pretending you don’t exist. Imagine the envy and antipathy, knowing that you have to bow and scrape for pocket change when you’re every bit the human being as the man on the street who never has to wonder where his next meal is coming from.

Now imagine that the two of you — the beggar and the everyday worker — are literally mirror images of each other. Imagine staring down the bitter, hungry, vengeful eyes of what you might have been.

What’s potentially even more terrifying is that these doppelgangers aren’t after anything so simple as money or material comforts — those are just Band-Aids on bullet wounds. Is there anything that could possibly atone for so many years of suffering? Anything at all that could guarantee their long-term happiness beyond a couple hundred bucks? Maybe not. But that won’t stop them from trying to take it.

To be clear (and I should hope this is clear, because it’s my blog), this is only my interpretation. There are a ton of recurring metaphors and symbols in here, from rabbits to holding hands to Jeremiah 11:11 and more. Not all of the ideas and images in this movie are given clear-cut definitions, granting the audience leeway to form their own opinions and interpretations while also ramping up the tension and suspense with the knowledge that anything could happen.

The drawback, of course, is that the mythology doesn’t make any kind of sense. Even with a massive exposition dump in the third act, the backstory is so opaque and brittle that the mechanics cannot survive even the slightest application of logic. Moreover, there are so many clues and concepts flying every which way, I don’t know if it’s even possible to put them all together in such a way that all of the pieces fit together seamlessly with none left over. It would take a critic more capable than I about five more rewatches across three or four months to put such a theory together, if such a task is even possible.

On a literal level, this movie doesn’t make any sense. But on an allegorical level, the movie makes a lot of sense. And anyway, horror is based far more strongly in emotions than rational thought — heady and intellectual ideas have their place and all, but this is still a genre built on the dumb mistakes and bad ideas of the lead characters.

The best that I can say about Us — and I mean this as very high praise — is that it met all expectations. The film was made and sold as “a straight-up horror film from the guy who made Get Out,” and it perfectly fits that description. It’s unsettling, it’s scary, it’s trippy, it’s superbly acted, it’s wonderfully shot, the use of comedy relief is beautifully effective, and the filmmakers succeed at making incisive statements in creative ways that demand attention.

While I passionately loathe the phrase “turn your brain off” with regards to seeing a movie, I think this one was built to work on more of a gut level. When you see this movie — and you should absolutely believe the hype and go see it — I’d humbly advise you not to waste your time picking apart the whys and wherefores of this world and how it works. Far better, more fulfilling, and more terrifying to think about what all the stuff onscreen was made to represent and why those concepts are so much more terrifying than any jump scare.

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