Jordan Peele understands the horror movie industry. Given he came out of the Blumhouse label with his directorial debut, the massively successful Get Out, this is no controversial statement. But his adept understanding of what works and doesn’t work about a horror film does not end at Jason Blum’s low-risk, high-reward model.
Peele has been transparent about his horror influences, and it is clear with Get Out and Us that he knows how to blend convention and subversion using his knowledge base of the genre. But it appears that he also understands that making a high quality genre film and selling a genre film are two very different obstacles.
The trailer for Us paints the film as a conventional horror piece; a home invasion film with a twist. It is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (or perhaps C.H.U.D., if you believe in the importance of opening shots) by way of The Strangers. The trailer adopts music from the film and “scares” it up with the usual beats of a horror trailer, including the loud sound cues accompanying antagonistic figures moving in and out of shadow.
This trailer includes imagery that Peele uses very intentionally in the film, imagery that is unique and, therefore, easily identifiable. And this trailer, with its imagery and loud music cues, along with the rapid reputation Peele has received as a horror director following Get Out, will help Us reach a $50 million (and then some) domestic opening.
But, in practice, the film is much more nuanced in its craft. The same scenes from the trailer are edited and scored much more effectively in the film itself (save for some instances where the percussive aspect of the score overwhelms the diegetic sound). Compare this to the teaser trailer for The Nun, which uses the same soundtrack used in the actual film to depict a long sequence of absolute silence followed by the loudest sound the sound editors could get away with. The latter utilizes much less craft.
Us won’t have the “art horror” stigma of films like The Witch or It Comes At Night; films which caused audible groans and sighs of disappointment in screenings I attended (despite the immense displays of craft in those films). “That s**t was lame,” the man next to me whispered to the woman he was with as the credits for The Witch rolled. I predict Us will fare more favorably with the general movie-going public than those A24 films.
This is because Us has a thorough and consistent entertainment factor. For a two-hour film, there is little fat to the plot, and as it moves along with verve it continues to excite with tense blocking and titillating set pieces. The film is tense, and it is fun from beginning to end.
As mainstream as it has been presented, the film maintains high aesthetic goals. From Get Out to this film, Peele has taken a huge step forward when it comes to visual design. And Get Out was a well-made film in its own right.
In Us, Peele is balancing a narrative filled with dangling causes, subtext, and a general sense of mystery. Most of it is handled wonderfully, leading us down a path where anything could happen next and we are constantly questioning what such things will be. Some of the questioning, including what sits with you when you leave the theater, doesn’t feel as impactful as that of Get Out. But Peele leaves the thematic implications broad and open to interpretation, breeding curiosity and making for an after-theater conversation starter.
Searching for how all of the imagery ties together invites repeat viewing, but it is the initial experience of Us that is fulfilling. You may catch on early to where the plot is leading, but predicting that doesn’t sully the impact of the film’s final set of reverse shots.
There are a few shortcomings to the film. Humor crops up in a way not dissimilar to Get Out. Unlike Get Out, however, it doesn’t translate as well. As we get later into the film, it comes off more unrealistic, given the severity of the characters’ present situation. What is more unrealistic is how some characters react in certain situations. At times, it feels as though characters make choices that serve the plot and not their own motivations.
It is easy to overlook these minor grievances, given how far Us sails over the bar of quality for the contemporary horror film. It is a bar that is, let’s say, the height of a standard Olympic hurdle. Every year, many films trip embarrassingly over it (take, for example, last year: Winchester, Truth or Dare, The Nun, Hellfest, The Predator, Slender Man, etc.), and a couple pole vault over it (last year: Hereditary, Revenge, and, to a lesser extent, Overlord and A Quiet Place).
Jordan Peele’s a good pole vaulter, is what I’m trying to say.
Us is a wild ride bolstered by Peele’s vision and a crucial ensemble cast. Lupita Nyong’o, in particular, gives a flooring performance that provides both an emotional current and a ceaselessly unsettling atmosphere. Additional noteworthy nodes in this horror romp: cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and composer Michael Abels.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)