Few could have predicted that one half of comedy duo Key & Peele would deliver, in Get Out, not only 2017’s most devilishly audacious horror film but a bona fide pop culture sensation, a feature debut that rightfully bagged writer-director Jordan Peele an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Talk about the weight of high expectation for its follow up.
To discuss in detail the film’s plot machinations would be to encroach into spoiler territory and therefore do it a disservice; safe to say that, for the most part, Us avoids the much-dreaded sophomore slump and that its barebones pitch plays out like an extended Twilight Zone episode – which is fitting considering Peele will be helming the series reboot. It sees Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their children Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) head to Santa Cruz, where Adelaide used to spend summers with her folks. There, some unpleasant childhood memories resurface, aggravated by a string of increasingly unsettling coincidences. One night, they are faced with an unwelcome quartet of visitors brandishing sewing material with homicidal intent. As if that wasn’t distressing enough, they look uncomfortably familiar…
Peele’s second film works on several levels, initially as a Funny Games-style home invasion thriller that progressively morphs into supernatural survival horror, with several nods to Kubrick’s The Shining and a surprising amount of humour along the way. Like any good Twilight Zone episode, it features social commentary, holding up a mirror to the darkness within us and the enemies that lie within. Frustratingly though, it doesn’t reach the same scathingly allegorical heights set by Get Out. Nor does it convincingly embrace the themes of personal repression the script tantalisingly flirts with. It does tease out a commentary on the trauma of America’s collective past – specifically that of a post-Reagan identity fracture, seen through a recurring reference to the 1986 Hands Across America campaign – but the use of this motif is brought to a conclusion that feels too predictable to properly provoke. Peele does come close to greatness, but ultimately doesn’t fully explore or luxuriate in the insidious and sub-textual darkness he initially teases. The filmmaker gets bogged down with unnecessary exposition regarding the rational origin of the doppelgänger figures, and you can’t help but feel a continued ambiguous approach would have packed a far creepier punch. The mythology regarding “the Tethered” is interesting: the awakened Freudian ids come to confront their egos in a manner that feels reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ underground dwellers, the Morlocks, who rise to bother the surface dwellers who live in a zombie-like state of repressed ignorance. But it’s a very muddled mythology, capped off by a weaker third act and a twist that will be figured out by most viewers by the end of the first act, leaving us to wonder why Peele opted to hold onto his empty reveal for as long as he does.
Inevitably, Us will be measured up against Get Out, and while it isn’t in the same league as Peele’s freshman effort, it does stand on its own two feet. Its singular craftsmanship, horrifically evocative imagery and top-notch performances redeem many of its bum notes. The young Shahadi Wright Joseph and Elizabeth Moss, who plays one of the family’s holidaying friends, are stunning, making your skin crawl with their duelling performances and delivering a masterclass in make-it-stop-before-my-blood-curdles-any-further facial contortions. As for Lupita Nyong’o, her eerie postures and tics are exceptionally handled, making this her best performance to date. These impressive turns deserved to be conjoined with a more tightly constructed lore; but as frustrating as Us can be, there’s the sneaking feeling it will reward repeat viewings. And there’s no denying it’ll provide enough nightmare fuel to quell thirsts until Peele re-enters The Twilight Zone.
Us | Directed by Jordan Peele (US, 2019), with Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex. Starts March 21.
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