Us (Spoiler-rific edition)
Bruce: I saw Us, Jordan Peele's "new nightmare," in at a crowded preview screening and it quickly became interactive, as the enthusiastic audience occasionally shouted warnings at the characters onscreen. For me, it just added to Peele's now-signature blend of horror and humor. How was your opening night crowd?
Edwin: Fairly tame by comparison, but mostly receptive to the jokes, with a decent amount of gasps, squeals, and various self-calming incantations. At least in that comparably traditional setting, I wonder if my fellow attendees were more attuned to Peele’s style and therefore weren’t as stunned by its freshness as they were with Get Out.
Bruce: Get Out did set the bar pretty high, and you knew going into Us to expect a lot of twists and turns — along with regular doses of fright and violence. It's those twists that I hoped we could talk about, so I would warn anyone who hasn't seen the movie to stop reading now.
Edwin: Let the spoilers issue forth, much like the blood from the film’s copious stab wounds inflicted by the invading doppelgängers’ long-handled scissors! My head’s still spinning a bit, slightly over 12 hours after the credits rolled, and largely because not all of the revelations make sense. Or maybe they do and I’m looking for deeper meanings on a Get Out level but Peele is primarily just wanting to freak us out?
Bruce: Well, that's what I wanted to talk about. Us is a compelling and entertaining movie, but it seemed to me the structural opposite of Get Out. That film builds to a series of wild revelations that explain and enrich all the craziness that's come before. With Us, I got the feeling Peele had a great idea for the first half of his movie and struggled a bit to explain it in the second half.
Edwin: The film’s storytelling approach indeed hampers it a bit. I was craving more foundation and set-up before the bloodletting began. Instead, the Wilson family — Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), Gabe (Winston Duke, Black Panther), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) — find themselves in home invasion mode from four “shadow”/“tethered” lookalikes with the film’s stakes largely undeveloped. I was able to go with the flow of the subsequent terror, yet while they were entertaining, the thrills often felt hollow.
Bruce: The notion of soulless doppelgängers vengefully seeking their twins isn't new to horror movies, so I was onboard for the home invasion without much more explanation, and the sequence is well sustained. It was when the movie expanded the premise to an even bloodier invasion of the home of the Wilsons' bickering friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker) and their daughters that I started wondering where we were going. Of course, at the same time, I was pleased Peele was diving deeper. As countless recent movies have proved, a single home invasion isn't usually enough to sustain a feature.
Edwin: I had a similar reaction regarding the evolution of the story beyond the Wilsons' vulnerable homestead while also wondering if the concept was being spread thin. From the moment early on when young Adelaide (Madison Curry) sees herself in a wall of funhouse mirrors and encounters her double, my guess was Peele was exploring the notion of the split between one’s true self and the identity each person presents to the world, specifically how that struggle pertains to the modern black experience. But adding white “others" to the equation dilutes the potency of that idea and left me wondering if there’s any overarching message at all.
Bruce: I think your observations about identity are sustained by the movie to some degree, along with an exploration of what it means to have a soul — and whether people diminish their souls through cruelty and frivolous values. The themes aren't as coherent as in Get Out, but they'll nip at your conscience. And I think the movie might have been thematically stronger if Peele had satisfied himself with a good deal less third-act exposition about where these invaders came from. His imagery far outstrips his nonsensical explanation.
Edwin: Peele is gifted at showing and doesn’t need to resort to flat-out telling — cryptic as some of his answers nonetheless are — so I wish he’d trusted his narrative talents a bit more here, especially seeing how far his directorial skills have developed from Film One to Film Two. He’s mentioned in interviews that Us is about modern society and fear of “the other,” but if that’s the case, what kind of message is he preaching when the outsiders murder the bulk of the human race and form a cross-country biped chain? Such disconnects make me think the film is primarily a horror romp, accented with half-formed commentary and threads of deeper meaning. But even then there are numerous instances where I felt the terror could have been amplified.
Bruce: The terror-humor balance was pretty much right on for me, save for the slump at the end when the movie pauses for a long monologue that provides a vague history of the invaders. Too much flat-out telling indeed: What have these doppelgängers, who we are told are human, been eating all these years that they've been living underground? Where did the red jumpers and shiny gold scissors come from? What about waste management? I mean, I didn't want to think about all that, but the long explanation tends to raise more questions than it answers. For a movie that regularly and productively references the paranoid sci-fi of the 1950s, Us fails the Invasion of the Body Snatchers test. There doesn't need to be a why. It just is, and people gotta react. The reacting part Peele pretty much nails.
Edwin: Speaking of Body Snatchers, what other films came to mind? The systematic injuring of the father figure to make the rest of the family vulnerable evoked the loathsome Funny Games, and Adelaide’s alter ego Red’s crazed face felt like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn from the nearly as bad Suicide Squad. But not only bad movies are referenced: The ending is also in line with the ambitious, nationwide effects of the underseen indie The Invitation.
Bruce: I'm not familiar with The Invitation, but I'll have to check it out. I did see M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, which was a considerably less successful version of this kind of world-at-risk tale. And the final underground sequence in Us had a kind of Stanley Kubrick feel to it, with elements of the formalism of The Shining and the madness of Full Metal Jacket blended together. So, as long as we're spoiling everything, how do you think the final twist played?
Edwin: I went for the Adelaid we know and love being an incognito tethered entity. It makes sense — in hindsight, it’s unlikely her “other” would merely spook her and let her go free, though that’s precisely what I convinced myself had happened — and is supported by a decent number of first-act clues. Seeing the film through that lens as well as fairly accepting it as a pure thriller bereft of its versions of Get Out's grand metaphors are the main reasons why I’m excited to watch it again. After one viewing, I place it in the low B-plus range, but what I’m not sure I’ll understand even following a revisit — or ever — is just where the Wilsons think they’re going and what the red-clad usurpers have planned once they get sick of holding hands.
Bruce: That’s very true. It’s got that Blade Runner quality of people escaping into the unknown but with no expectation of actual peace. That final twist does explain a lot — Adelaid becomes the spark for the whole gradual explosion we’ve just witnessed, and, as you point out, it justifies Red’s family not immediately murdering all the Wilsons, as all the other twins apparently do. I don’t have any answers for you on what the usurpers are up to, but since the final images are rather impressive, let’s hope they remain final and we’re not forced to endure a sequel. That would be a spoiler indeed. I’ll join you with a B-plus.
(Photos: Universal Pictures)