Us (2019)

[spoilers for the film]

Where Jordan Peele’s first film, “Get Out”, was a focused, direct horror imbibed with specific social commentary, his second film, “Us”, is a murkier entity. It’s much more a genre piece, focused on visceral scares and weighed down by that structural loop of simpler horror affairs (a fright, normalcy simmers down to calm, group character building moment, foreshadowing as fakeout scares rise in tension and stakes until they escalate back up into a full fright, repeat and repeat).

The social commentary, the politics (such as they are) are less coherent and less defined, even with an excruciating stream of exposition awkwardly delivered towards the end of the film (one so tangible and specific it breaks a lot of the workable emotional and narrative logic of the film, ratcheting down the scares and the impact in the process). Much of Peele’s directorial sense is excellent, possibly even improved from “Get Out”, as he handles the revelatory cast, the visuals that always find the most creative and effective way to punctuate the scares, the escalation of setpieces…but the writing is messier.

Even when the writing isn’t messy, it’s just plainly less interesting than what Peele’s already achieved – it’s even sloppy at times! A motif about coincidences is outright dropped after the first act, many of the surprises in the third act are muddled by the extent to which Peele insists on highlighting the confusing tangible mechanics of them (oh, how better the film might’ve worked if it lent more into the dream logic it suggested in its beginning), the second act feels stifled by the repetitive genre loop it gets boxed into, and so on. The visuals and sound design are at such a high level, and the cast are outright stunning in what they achieve, that most everything works anyway, but the story’s themes and purpose feel muddled, and not in a prompts-the-mind way a Lynch-esque take might, but more in a way reflecting the dissonance of tone, of approach, between the extent to which some things are explained, and to which some are left to rest in dreamier, emotional senses of logic.

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When an antagonist begins a speech with “Decades ago, the government created…” (or some such), one doesn’t feel they’re in the hands of a writer with confidence in their concept. That the film has invited both pro and anti socialist readings might suggest a winning applicability, but it feels more a representational incoherence to me, considering how much the film tries to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to treatment of its doppelgangers. The trappings of a class-based reading are all there; the specificity of the underground (which an opening text card goes to painful lengths to illustrate), of literal “fast” food, of a submerged class being (again, literally) voiceless. But nearly the entire film treats them in such a way that their demonisation is justified, then they’re explained with a nonsensically delivered conspiratorial exposition dump (the justification for that speech being delivered at all, given the ending, seems to defy explanation) about some kind of government-overseen unconscious clone-based mimicry.

What can be read about social mobility works well, but the point about otherisation feels hollow when the film goes out of its way to vindicate the doppelganger’s demonisation. Is the way their ringleader rejoices in her dispensing of the (literal) “upper” classes meant to invite negative comment, and the torturous-yet-quick methods the other doppelgangers use are more noble? They are treated more as animals than human, all the way down to their speech and gait. At best the film achieves a pained empathic recognition of the doppelgangers, but certainly not celebration, vindication, approval. Their status as “Americans” condemns the upper class bowled over by their violence (demonstrated with brilliant physical comedy on Tim Heidecker’s part, though no performance in the film comes close to matching the layered artistry of Lupita Nyong’o’s, whose only issue is the awkward voice she has to adopt as her second), as well as the middle class more capable of fighting back, but there’s no real sympathy given to an underclass depicted entirely as animalistic freaks except for the one that managed to escape up the social ladder. That demonstration of the arbitrariness of any biological divider rings hollow when all this subtext only comes to the fore in an exposition-heavy ending, where the film earlier was happy to work through its horror setpieces uncritically. At least further hollowness was recognised in the hand-chaining ending, but even that feels tonally adrift in how much it pulls back to the symbolic after such a dialogue-heavy ending.

There’s much to admire in the film, especially in its performances, but the writing groans under an approach that tries to have it two ways. Hopefully Peele continues to try different approaches, as he did here from “Get Out”. Three and a half baseball bats, and an offbeat finger snap.

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