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Us
★★☆☆☆
First run Theater cinema

Jordan Peele follows up his spectacular, Oscar-winning, surprise hit Get Out (2017) with this disappointing psychological horror thriller about a family vacation that unearths America’s dark collective id. Us stars Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave, Queen of Katwe, Black Panther), delivering another stellar, fiercely committed performance, as Adelaide. She is the matriarch of a happy nuclear family that includes her husband Gabe (Black Panther's Winston Duke), a smartphone-obsessed teenage girl, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and a Halloween mask-wearing boy, Jason (Evan Alex). They are a typical middle-class African-American family that apparently summers in Santa Cruz every year along with their friends the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, and Cali & Noelle Sheldon), a slightly better off family who stay in a somewhat fancier summer rental. No explanation is given early on as to why Adelaide would choose to take her family to Santa Cruz, since she experienced a terrifying childhood event there that left her with PTSD. That long unanswered question is the first of many substantial flaws that prevent the internal logic of Peele’s screenplay from coming together in a satisfying or effectively confrontational way. 

It’s always difficult to overcome the dreaded sophomore slump after a début as impressive as Get Out, but Peele, a nearly forty-year-old veteran writer and performer when he directed his first picture, seemed poised to avoid that unfortunate tradition. While Us bears a few similarities to Get Out, it is in no way a retread. Peele seems to have taken to heart the one minor criticism some audiences had of the film that won him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar and became the tenth highest grosser of 2017that it wasn’t scary enough. Us goes out of its way to declare itself an unabashed scary movie—a home invasion thriller with elements of zombie action, sci-fi chiller, body horror, and the blend of existential dread and societal metaphor that made Get Out both wonderfully original and a welcome return to the kind of smart, A-list genre picture popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

But where Get Out succeeds on a staggering number of levels, Us doesn’t even deliver the simplest jump-out-of your-seats scares. Where Get Out is a small, tightly scripted picture that wastes not one moment of screen time or line of dialogue as it explores major issues in a seemingly effortless fashion, Us is an overlong, unnecessarily drawn-out film that takes too many big thematic concepts and forces them to coexist within an insufficient narrative structure. Where Get Out works as both a biting social satire and a first-rate horror movie, Us places its underdeveloped subtext over its potentially compelling narrative, with its comedic elements undercutting any real menace or threat. 

Us doesn’t just suffer in comparison to the masterful Get Out, it fails on its own merits at far too many key points. The deliberate pacing is meant to establish a feeling of unease and dread, but it delays the real start of the picture for far too long. The inconsistency in how the lead characters and those who menace them behave when compared to the rest of the people we see in the film is confusing and keeps us from investing in the immediate action. And everything builds to a convoluted third act reveal that relies on a lengthy expository monologue, which ultimately makes little sense—it perhaps makes metaphorical sense, but the world of this movie’s antagonists, and the ways they’re connected to the protagonists, doesn’t stand up to any kind of logical scrutiny. Us is the kind of allegorical picture where you need to focus on what you believe the filmmaker is trying to say rather than what he’s showing you on screen. The final twist at the end, which most experienced genre viewers will see coming, answers some longstanding questions but simultaneously nullifies whatever internal reality the film had to begin with. 

With his two features and his forthcoming reboot of The Twilight Zone anthology TV series, Peele—who built his career as a sketch comedy writer and performer on Mad TV and as half of the iconic duo Key and Peele—has reinvented himself a modern-day Rod Serling, exploring weighty moral and political themes via entertaining genre stories. Indeed, Us would have probably worked far better as a half hour or hour long TV narrative that could have remained ambiguous to a degree that's difficult to get away with when working within the requirements of a crowd-pleasing feature-length movie. But I hope Peele continues to make stories for the big screen and that Us will ultimately stand as the underwhelming 2nd feature in a celebrated run of intelligent, mid-budget horror pictures—the kind that studios don't produce anymore.

Twitter Capsule:
Peele's sophomore feature about a family vacation that unearths America’s dark collective id lacks the economy, clarity, and brilliance of his Get Out. Strong lead performance and some haunting imagery can't make up for the logic issues in this underdeveloped allegory.

Directed by Jordan Peele
Produced by Jordan Peele, Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, and Ian Cooper

Written by Jordan Peele

With: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon, and Madison Curry

Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis
Editing: Nicholas Monsour
Music: Michael Abels

Runtime: 116 min
Release Date: 22 March 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.39 : 1
Color