“Oscar-winning horror movie” are four words genre fans don’t see strung together very often, but in 2017 they were deservedly wrapped around Get Out, the multi-layered masterpiece written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele. The film was nominated in four categories — Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Achievement in Directing, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Daniel Kaluuya) and Best Original Screenplay — but only Peel’s script took home the golden statuette. U
With such accolades resting on his shoulders from his directorial debut, the pressure must have been insanely intense on Peele as he went behind the camera to film his sophomore effort, Us, the story of a family vacation that starts at a sunny beach and quickly falls down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole. If he was feeling it, though, he managed to keep it out of the finished film. While Us may not prove to be an award-winning darling like its predecessor, it’s still a highly entertaining horror movie.
Entertaining and, by the time the final credits roll, just a little bit frustrating.
The film opens telling the story of a little girl and her parents spending a summer night in 1986 at a seaside boardwalk. Dad’s drinking a bit too much, mom is getting on his case about it and the girl wanders off when their backs are turned and wanders over to a spooky house of mirrors. Something happens to the girl…but exactly what happens is something you just have to wait for the movie to unfold to discover.
The story then jumps forward to present day where the girl (Lupita Nyog’o), now all grown up, is reluctantly traveling with her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) back to the summer home at the beach where the weird thing happened. Naturally, it isn’t too long before weird things start happening again, not only to the grown-up little girl, but to her family, her friends and, unless someone solves the mystery of what is causing all this to happen, the rest of the world.
If all that reads a bit vaguely, there is a good reason. Part of the joy or watching Us is just sitting back and enjoying the ride. It may only be his second feature film, but Peele is showing himself to be a strong storyteller with a sharp visual style. There are scenes in Us that will haunt you long after the lights come on, and very few of them are actual action sequences or kill shots. The introduction of the villains into the story, for example, is terrifying, Sure, you can sit back and tell yourself it’s just four shadowy figures standing at the end of a driveway,but the way Peele and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis film it fills the screen with nail-biting tension. You need something to happen just so you can breathe again only to have you breath come out as a muffled scream when it does.
Peele and Gioulakis also don’t shy away from filling the screen with an actor’s face to ratchet up the tension throughout the story. Of course, that is expected when it comes to scaring the audience with close-ups of the bad guys and with the way the bad guys look in Us it works really well. The bonus here is the way the use close-ups of the family to give the film its emotional depth: one look at the almost feral look on face of the mom, played by Lupita Nyog’o, as she prepares to fight to protect her family will nail you to the edge of your seat.
All the visual artistry it has to offer, though, can’t keep Us from stumbling as it reaches its final reel and comes to the point where it has to explain what the movie is really all about. Are the bad guys part of a military experiment gone horribly wrong? Are they, as the title implies, “us” but a twisted shadow version of us that just never got a chance to come out into the light? Is their appearance a sign of the apocalypse? Is their only desire to join hands in a villainous chain that stretches across America?
And what’s with all the rabbits?
Hopefully, a second — or third — viewing of Us will reveal all the answers that just didn’t come across strongly enough the first time. If that’s what it takes, then fine. Even if it never leads you to the big “A-HA!” moment you are looking for, watching Us is worth it.
- John Black, Lead Theatrical Reviewer