Hands Across America: A Review of “Us”

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It’s no secret that I adore Jordan Peele’s debut horror feature, Get Out. Needless to say, it’s a film I immediately fell in love with due to its intricate details, stellar performances, and perfectly paced narrative. It went on to be my favorite film of 2017, and I would definitively declare it as being one of the decade’s absolute best films. Having watched it yet again just last month, I’m astounded at the fact that Get Out remains as impressive as ever, and I have been counting down the days until we would get to see what Peele had in store for us with his next film.

Finally, that wait is over. After two long years, Peele is again gracing cinema marquees with his highly anticipated follow-up, Us. I’m going to be up front here: Us is nowhere near as good as its predecessor. However, despite some glaring misgivings I have toward this sophomoric effort, Us is definitely worth seeing. It is, in the end, an extremely well-made and oftentimes very enjoyable horror flick. However, Us is also nowhere close to being as essential as Get Out was. But it should come as no surprise that Peele’s newest work again highlights remarkable acting and gorgeous cinematography, and is based upon yet another inventive, terrifying scenario that’s sure to not only get your blood pumping, but also stimulate your mind in the process.

At the center of Us is a family of four, the Wilsons, which includes mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son Jason (Evan Alex). We join them as they’re pulling up to their comfortable beach house for a summer getaway in Adelaide’s childhood home in Santa Cruz, and we’re allowed some valuable time upfront in order to better align ourselves with these characters and appreciate their relationships with one another. These early moments are breezy, funny, and memorable, as Peele makes it easy to become attached to his likable cast of characters.

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While everything’s fine up to this point, Adelaide appears to be inexplicably worried about the trip; as if she fears something awful is coming for them if they stay. Of course, this being a horror movie and all, we agree with her. Their first night, just as Adelaide is telling Gabe she wants to leave, their son Jason alerts them to a family that’s standing in their driveway. When confronted, the shadowy figures scurry off into the dark, surrounding the house from multiple angles. The figures do eventually break in, and it’s revealed that they’re alternate, somewhat primitive versions of the Wilsons.

The intruders look exactly like their regular counterparts, and yet outside of the matriarch of this mysterious family, who we come to know simply as Red, none of them can speak. And Red, even, can only talk in a low-pitch, gurgled voice that’s incredibly off-putting. Once the malevolent versions of the family get the upper hand, Red sits the Wilsons down to tell them her story, before letting her family loose on each of their counterparts. Us quickly turns into one of the most interesting takes on the home invasion thriller in years, with each member of the family facing off against its respective doppelgänger.

But before all of this occurs, Us actually opens with a short prologue set in 1986. It’s here that we are first introduced to a young version of our film’s heroine, Adelaide, and through the next few scenes we’re given context as to why she will later act so paranoid. I bring this up in order to point out something that occurs right at the beginning, as Adelaide is propped up in front of an old television set. Here we watch alongside Adelaide as an ad for the infamous Hands Across America campaign plays, with the camera lingering on the entirety of the commercial. It immediately becomes clear that this scene will eventually mark some importance to the grand message of the film. But even as I’ve had time to reflect on this portion of the narrative, I’m still not certain I understand what Peele is trying to say. Much of the subtextual symbolism, in my eyes, begins to fall apart when held up against the textual narrative we watch involving the family. It simply doesn’t all add up in a neat fashion.

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Like Get Out, there’s clearly so much imagery here that Peele has specifically placed throughout Us in order to either foreshadow upcoming events or provide insight into exactly the underlying message he wants to reveal with his story. With Get Out, further examination and conversation allowed the pieces of its expansive puzzle to better fall into place. Specifically, all those tremendous “a-ha” moments of which that movie is so exquisitely made up of. But in the time I’ve had between seeing Us and writing about it here, through discussion with peers as well as my own reflection on how I believe all of the smaller pieces fit together, I often become confused, underwhelmed, or even worse, frustrated.

It’s unfortunate, as I was completely onboard with everything the film had to offer through its first two acts. I gleefully watched on in horror as the central family is stalked and terrorized by some freaky, red-jumpsuit-clad alternate versions of themselves. Us is really good as a take on the home invasion thriller. But Us is also really only that type of film for a short period of time, before shifting gears into a totally wild direction — one I simply didn’t enjoy as much. And it’s too bad, because the homebound sequences in the first half are impressively tense and well choreographed, combining genuine suspense and dread into the scariest scenes of the entire film.

I do of course applaud Peele for the risks he takes here — as well as for the allegorical subtext I believe he’s attempting to reveal with his story — but it’s the execution of which that’s left me underwhelmed. Us truly becomes lacking in its final stretch, wherein the narrative takes some painfully expected turns — something especially disappointing coming from the man responsible for the unforgettably surprising Get Out. Perhaps the new film’s greatest sin is its “twist ending,” which is so excruciatingly obvious that I knew what it would be no more than 15 minutes in. It’s honestly such a straightforward twist that, as the film continued, I began convincing myself that it couldn’t be that simple…until it just was. And even outside of how frustratingly easy it is to figure out early on, it becomes even more irritating upon realization that the twist doesn’t actually reveal anything meaningful. At least, nothing I can deduce at this time.  

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I clearly had extremely high expectations leading into Us, and it had a lot to live up to (for a fun drinking game, take a shot every time I’ve compared Us to Get Out in this write-up alone). It’s a film that’s close to greatness, but ultimately fails at juggling too many high-concept ideas at once. However, I still did manage to enjoy my time with it, mostly because Peele remains a fantastic, visionary filmmaker showcasing a great eye for unforgettable imagery and shot composition — something that both his films have in spades. And like I said at the top, Us also puts a spotlight on some spot-on performances, specifically from Nyong’o, who gives a knock-out, Oscar-worthy portrayal as both Adelaide and her murderous doppelgänger Red. Plus, the film also succeeds in having its fair share of fun, tense, and creepy horror setpieces — my highlights being a patriarchal showdown on a rundown motorboat, and a particularly blood-spattered sequence soundtracked by The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

It’s a testament to Peele’s ability as a filmmaker and storyteller that while I have a fair amount of gripes with his film, I’ve also already bought a ticket to a second screening of Us. I am genuinely looking forward to discussing it further with friends in attempts to pick away at its core, and I hope that with future viewings, I come to discover more angles at which to dissect its message.

3.5 stars out of 5

— Michael Lane, Film Blogger

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