In “Us,” Jordan Peele Unleashes His Apocalyptic Pessimism

March 22, 2019

Few endings are as gratifying as the conclusion of “Get Out.” Our hero, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) finally, well, gets out (with some unexpected help from a friend). But this crowd-pleasing closure was writer/director Jordan Peele’s second choice: The alternate ending, which found Chris unjustly imprisoned, is a much more realistic resolution—and an enormous bummer.

Two years later—and with the world even worse off—“Us” synthesizes the pessimism of that original ending into a two hour, intentionally frustrating, indictment. If “Get Out” was a spotlight on the Obama-era’s ugly underside, then Peele’s sophomore feature is the bloody, queasy reckoning that’s come for all of us with the Trump presidency. Yet this makes the movie somewhat difficult to judge: “Us” left me profoundly unsettled, confused and unhappy. I’d wager that was Peele’s whole goal.

Like “Get Out,” “Us” opens on a long country road leading to a doomed vacation. This time, we’re traveling with the Wilson family, Adeline (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Duke, working with his “Black Panther” co-star, turns in a nice, breezy performance, and newcomers Joseph and Alex keep up (in other words, “Us” isn’t held back by its child actors but bolstered by them). Lupita Nyong’o, meanwhile, is absolutely superb, working both sides of a beautiful, nuanced dual role. And while the marketing has played it pretty close to the chest, she’s definitely playing the main character; clutching a fire poker, she emerges Lady Liberty reincarnated, a horror protagonist for the ages.

On a scene-by-scene basis, this thing is damn near perfect. Each piece of Peele’s puzzle is well-constructed, tense and entirely captivating. The auteur hasn’t lost his ability to energize an audience: Just as his debut served up surprises at every turn, “Us” will keep you on your toes to the final frame (and potentially, past it). Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (another incredibly talented filmmaker), Peele delivers a stream of memorable and precise images, carefully and constantly showing—never telling.

Many have described “Us” as “scarier” than Peele’s prior outing—and there’s certainly an increase in violence. But once the heads start rolling, they look identical to our own. The disgust that reverberates throughout knows no bounds: We, on a collective and individual level, are responsible for our massive national predicament. David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” serves as a spiritual predecessor, and it’s no mistake “Us” opens with a prologue set the same year “Velvet” was released. Both illustrate a sensation of staring into the abyss at the heart of the United States and seeing your own reflection. Furthermore, both are set in a heightened reality, while offering no solutions to the very real problems they uncover, lying just below the surface.

Again, there was a satisfaction to “Get Out”—the foreshadowing, mythology and performances all lined-up to make an airtight, endlessly re-watchable picture. This time around, Peele is less interested in pleasing his audience, so he doesn’t always supply an explanation. And because his message is so severely depressing, and sometimes messily articulated, you sort of get the sense that “Us” is less than the sum of its parts. But no—that would be as unsatisfying an ending to this review as “Us” itself. Instead, I’ll say this is a movie you must see—just don’t expect it to ever aid the dread it’ll point you to.

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