LIGHT SPOILER WARNING
Us is fine.
Really, it’s just fine. I liked it. It’s funny. It’ll keep you engaged. It’ll keep you away from our depressing reality for 116 minutes. If you haven’t seen a horror movie in the last two years, this movie is a good way to wade back into the genre. But I wouldn’t really care to see this again. The whole film plays like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone, which is fine, but not fulfilling.
If this movie weren’t directed by Jordan Peele, I couldn’t see it garnering the attention it received. Peele really blew up after Get Out; deservedly so, as it was an amazing production. Get Out was technically well made and had a poignant theme to boot. But its salient social critique on American bigotry is really what solidified the film as a “moment” in American pop-culture. I feel that many are walking into Us expecting the same sort of raison d’etre from this film. And while Us does have a (blunt) political message, it does it with far less panache or nuance than Get Out or other horrors released in the past few years.
Damn the taste-makers
The taste-making gentry that defines mainstream cultural discourse seems to have a heavy bias against horror movies in general. Specifically, I’ve found that if the social or political commentary in a horror film isn’t blunt enough, or doesn’t line up perfectly with high-society discourse, they are wholly ignored by the cultural critics that pepper our favorite media outlets. Certain horror movies are signaled as being “one of the good ones,” insinuating that horror on the whole isn’t sophisticated enough to be integrated into the American zeitgeist. You can tell just by the way Us is being compared almost exclusively to Get Out; as if it’s the only horror movie to have come out in the last two years. But so many other films in the genre were at least if not more cohesive and stylized than Us. Annihilation, The First Purge, Mother! and Mandy all work as movies and have deeper things to say and were presented in better metaphor.
To that end, I’m a bit shocked by the praise the movie is receiving, which at time of this writing is sitting at a 94% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But a closer inspection of individual reviews reveal that this rating is overly generous. Over-reaching, uneven and confusing are common criticisms, among other glaring indictments, that are peppered in otherwise positive reviews. Somehow, these very crucial critiques are glazed over in favor of far narrower praise for Peele in general. Really, this all just reveals the flimsiness of the “Tomatometer” as a metric of a film’s value. But also, it shows an unwillingness to judge Peele against the genre he’s working in. Where other horror movies are written off for the issues that plague Us, this film skirts by.
Needless to say, there was a heavy expectation placed on Us, especially as many were expecting the same sort of political satire that Get Out so aptly delivered. This movie doesn’t do that. Its social commentary is sloppily delivered and unsupported by its text. It’s all around well-acted, and Nyong’o certainly deserves praise for her creepy performance as Red. But overall, our protagonists are blandly written, all fulfilling stock-horror clichés that make relating to the plight of this family a chore. The Dad is goofy and bumbling. The Teenager is sassy and self-conscious. The Child is a bit abnormal and spaced out. If you haven’t watched a movie in the last forty years, these characters will feel new to you. The characters don’t really feel dynamic or evolving, and the dialogue is stilted and uninteresting. All of this kept me from really engaging with the movie on a deeper level.
To be clear, Us is well acted, well directed, and well shot. I had fun watching this movie, and recommend it to anyone looking for a passable movie experience. But calling this a “horror” is a bit of a stretch. I didn’t find any portion particularly haunting or jarring. While Peele can nab a creepy scene, or Nyong’o can deliver an entrancing, haunting line, none of this made me scared or ponderous. Really, it plays out like a creepy thriller with an interesting premise, as the movie keeps tension in a low boil in Lynchian weirdness and magical realism. While this tension never really resolves, I found the uncanny tone of the film fun to engage with; although the slow and boring introduction to our family makes the first half-hour or so quite a slog.
But the Tethered don’t really feel tethered…
Nyong’o’s Red, is a creepy and fascinating villain. If it weren’t for this antagonist, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this at all. Nyong’o has a way of moving across the screen, dancing and spinning with a deliberate yet suprising motion, that entrances the viewer (and our protagonists) into her mastermind scheme. But it’s a let down that Red doesn’t really have an equal match in her doppelganger. In every way that Red is unsettling and enthralling, her double Adelaide (also played by Nyong’o) is unremarkable and bland.
And this is where the movie breaks down. Us doesn’t deliver proper foils. Having interesting, well-developed protagonists is key to a conflict centered around facing literal character doubles. But the bland family fails to give us flawed, interested characters; and the result is bland, monotone monsters. Practically speaking, the movie’s antagonists felt lazy and nonthreatening, even as they were stabbing and murdering. The tethered also fail to be presented in ways that would carry thematic significance. All the tethered, save for Red, act the same: all have the same murderous intent, all have the same leader, all stumble around the same way, and are all beaten in the same uninspired manner (blunt force, save for a few tricks). The tethered never really challenge the flaws of their doppelganger, so the tethered never really feel connected to their victims.
Maybe these interactions would feel more inspired if the tethered exhibited aggrandized flaws of our protagonists. But our protagonists feel so blandly written or underdeveloped that their connection to their shadows is perfunctory and uninspired. Because they are doubles, their threat is only as powerful as the character they are shadowing. Because we never spend enough time with our family unit, and because they are never given detailed agency and exploitable flaws, we are never given the payoff of watching a character grow by defeating (or failing to defeat) their own flaws or presumptions.
Thematically, this movie is easy to “get,” as Us lays on its premise pretty thick. The tethered are an analogy to the rise of angry populism in American culture. See, the tethered are supposed to mirror everything their surface double performs, except they live in underground lairs and can’t really talk and aren’t really educated. The allegory here is pretty on the nose: the tethered’s uprising is the result of simmering anger of an exploited and controlled lower class. Their attempts to replicate and mimic the lives of wealthier or more powerful Americans were fruitless in their forsaken domains, which engendered a violent uprising in order to achieve what they felt promised. In case there is any confusion about this theme, the film makes sure to deliver it in an unsubtle monologue: Red states bluntly, in response to an inquiry into who the tethered are, that “we are Americans.” Everybody got that? Good.
This review turned out a little more negative than I originally intended. And I think it’s because I really enjoyed the theme of the movie itself. What are the implications of a culture so desperately clinging to lifestyle brands and social media influencers who tease gilded displays of happiness and glamour? This is a topic that is ripe for exploration and brimming with horror, but Us’ weak characterization hampers the movie’s ability to deliver a meaningful conflict to comment on this theme with allegory. As a result, we are delivered a weird, entertaining, but ultimately shallow thriller that doesn’t really add any detail or prescription to the already observed inequity of American life.