Written & Directed by Jordan Peele
Years ago young Adelaide was visiting the Santa Cruz Boardwalk with her parents when she became separated from them. Wandering inside a funhouse of mirrors the girl has an encounter that continues to haunt her into her adult years. Present day finds Adelaide, her husband Gabe and two children Zora and Jason are on the way to their lake house in Central California. Gabe has a new boat and their plans to meet up with some friends across the lake. When Adelaide finds out they are going to the beach, right off the boardwalk, she freaks out but eventually relents. Strange coincidences occur with a sense of impending doom coming for our protagonist, images harken back to her childhood trauma, and something she has repressed for so long begins to leak out. That night a strange family appears at the end of the lake house driveway which will lead to Adelaide and her family descending into hell.
Like a picky eater, I have very strong feelings about what ingredients you put in my horror. When I look at media I consume that falls along the spectrum of the horrific; I like one of two directions: an extraordinarily intimate claustrophobic experience or a deep dive into cosmic and incomprehensible evil. Us does dip its toes into both ponds to an extent. There are two things I do not like in my horror: lots of jokey beats or epidemics (like zombie outbreaks, faux news coverage of large scale attacks). Us also dips its toes in these aspects of horror, and it was those moments that I pulled away a bit from the movie. These are my personal feelings, and your mileage may vary because you’ll have your tastes about this particular genre.
From the opening text, Jordan Peele lets us in on his inspiration for the picture: the massive network of abandoned tunnels and passages beneath the United States. He lets us know we’re going to explore interactions between our world and a shadow world. It’s made even more apparent in the opening shot of a little girl’s face reflected in a television screen. On either side of the television are videocassettes of movies, one of which is C.H.U.D., a 1984 horror picture about sewer dwellers who are taking people from the surface. There’s also a commercial for Hands Across America, a nationwide event intended to raise money for local homelessness and hunger based charities. Infamously, after accumulating 34 million dollars, only 15 million made its way to the actual charities. These two elements are the seeds from which the rest of the movie grows.
Young Adelaide has been brought to the Santa Cruz boardwalk for her birthday, and her father is in the process of winning her a prize, tossing baseballs at a pyramid of bottles. She opts for a Michael Jackson Thriller shirt. It’s obvious her father is drunk, and her mother is annoyed that they came here in the first place. He asks to go on a rollercoaster, and the mother reminds him Adelaide is too small for the rides. This leads to us questioning whose idea it was to come to a place where only the dad appears to be having any fun.
Later in the film, Gabe and family friend Josh playful compete over material goods. Gabe buys a boat because Josh has one, which we see later in the movie is much larger. Comments are made about the nice car Josh bought, and we see his house is filled to the brim with consumer goods. Josh and his wife down vast quantities of alcohol in every scene they are present in. Kitty, Josh’s wife, laments that if she never had her twin daughters, she could have become a film actress and confesses to having a small facelift. In many ways, Josh and Kitty parallel Adelaide’s parents in that they are unhappy but consuming despite this because what else do you do?
When Us is working at its best, it is delving deep into the existential horror of its premise and its commentary on free will. Do we consume because we choose to or is because consumption is a pre-programmed function? We see Adelaide put in extreme situations and see how she takes life so easily when pushed to her limits. She loses aspects of her humanity when she becomes consumed by her bloodthirstiness. However, isn’t she justified, she’s only protecting her family after all? I wanted the film to go deep the murky blackness of this philosophy and become something much darker. I’m not saying Us isn’t a dark movie, but Peele leans on humor during the more dire scenes to cut the tension. I get that it’s a wide release horror film, but I am starting to feel about mainstream horror the same way I think about the superhero genre. With so many of these movies out there wouldn’t be cool to make them more diverse on more than a superficial level? Like thematically diverse and tonally diverse? I think powerful things are being said at the threshold in Us but the movie never quite finds its way there.
Us is not a bad horror movie; it’s a damn well-made one for sure. If you are looking for a tense, scary experience in the theater, then you’ll no doubt get your money’s worth. After the film debuted at SXSW, I read some critics speaking about the picture as some monument in the genre, a game-changing piece of cinema. It’s good, no doubt but I am not willing to go that far. I think the movies Peele had his actors watch in preparation speak to a filmmaker who loves horror. You can see shades of The Shining, Hereditary, and It Follows especially woven throughout. I still believe Peele has a genuinely great film waiting to be made; we just haven’t gotten it quite yet.