The Critics Ruined “Us”

Jordan Peele's "Get Out" was a masterpiece. "Us" is a tedious drag tailored to the sensibilities of critics.

A still from Us. Universal Studios

I get the message that we’re all supposed to love the movie Us. It’s writer-director Jordan Peele’s second film after his sensational debut Get Out. He’s very talented, and we’re all pulling for him.

Social media is pinging with tributes to the film’s greatness. The film’s opening weekend box-office crushed it.

And critics are going wild trying to come up with more fulsome adjectives to describe the film’s brilliance. Richard Brody of the New Yorker says “Us is nothing short of a colossal achievement.”

I wonder if I should recuse myself from reviewing the film. Because though I went off eagerly to see it, and leaned forward in my seat to drink in its wonders, I have to admit it that for me it was a bust. Even the lively audience of teenagers and twentysomethings surrounding me, inclined to yell out “Oh HELL no” at the scary parts, sat in ever glummer silence in the last third of the film when the massive exposition dump occurs. When the credits rolled, they filed out dispiritedly.

I wish I could’ve loved Us. But — how do I say this politely — what a boring mess, with just a couple of scary scenes in the middle and a genuinely good plot idea gone wrong. That idea involves a terrifying underclass of doppelgangers that show up in the homes of the affluent, all dressed in red prison-labor overalls and hand-protecting leather gloves, ready to gouge the bougie types to death with scissors.

What’s not to like, right? I mean, that’s entertainment!

But the choice of scissors — exceedingly shiny ones featured prominently on the movie posters — alerts us that something is off. It seems too significant in a way that messes with the base-level symbolism that’s already in place.

Monstrous doppelgangers emerging from the deserted mining and subway tunnels hollowing out the country’s foundation are already representing the oppressed working class. So why don’t they come bearing every weapon that’s ready to hand — presuming you want to leave out guns because hand-to-hand combat is important in this film — anything up to and including crowbars, tire-irons, hammers, wrenches, bats, sticks, rocks, whatever does damage? Scissors could be in there too, but just ordinary household ones that you’d find lying around anywhere, not fancy shears that look like the Bronte sisters once used them for dressmaking and they’ve been in a museum ever since.

But scissors are necessary to dramatize Peele’s idea of what’s happening that fateful night, which will later be explained at yawn-inducing length and is called “The Untethering.”

That’s just a terrible name, precious and old-timey to no purpose. Really makes you appreciate whoever came up with The Purge.

Maybe the problem is, I really like genre films. And I have it on the authority of Richard Brody, who created this word-salad tribute in his review, that genre doesn’t matter, and even if it does, Jordan Peele transcends its lowly confines:

Genre is irrelevant to the merits of a film, whether its conventions are followed or defied; what matters is that Peele cites the tropes and precedents of horror in order to deeply root his film in the terrain of pop culture — and then to pull up those roots. Us is a film that places itself within pop culture for diagnostic — and even self-diagnostic — purposes; its subject is, in large measure, cultural consciousness and its counterpart, the cultural unconscious. The crucial element of horror is political and moral — the realities that metaphorical fantasies evoke.

It’s not uncommon for a critic favorably reviewing a genre film to indicate that genre is beside the point, even if that critic goes on to contradict himself like mad all over the place. But I know it’s time for me to edge away when everything about a film must be described in grander and statelier and more embiggening terms for it to be liked. That usually means a film that’s dull as hell.

I have to admit that, much as I wanted to love Us, I didn’t even like the trailer when I first saw it. Hated the title — so cutely announcing that it’s about us as a society, America now, “U.S.,” get it? It’s like Jordan Peele read the glowing reviews of Get Out and got all the wrong ideas about things to do based on what critics approve of. Critics like big obvious messages, and allegory, and showy symbolism, but that’s not what was good about Get Out.

The amazing thing about Get Out — which also had a weak third act, but not half so weak as the Us third act — was that it presented straightforwardly some of the most common experiences of black life when negotiating strongholds of white wealth and power. Based on that approach, Peele seemed to miraculously create a new variation in American horror film simply by tying the film to the point of view of a black character.

Get Out starts with a prologue involving a black man (the excellent Lakeith Stanfield) getting lost hunting for an address one night in a white upper-class neighborhood, where he’s increasingly sure that every gaze directed at him from inside the lofty homes will be a paranoid and hostile one. That means he’s in danger, and he starts walking faster, glancing nervously from side to side. Then a fancy sports car with tinted windows starts following him, matching his pace, clearly harassing him. From there you only need the incongruously jaunty WWII British song “Run, Rabbit, Run” to start playing and a slightly fantastical plot development to occur to vault you from social realism into full-blown horror.

Us tries for the same kind of opening, emphasizing ordinary experience before the side-step over into a related world of fantastical horror. But the sequence is far longer and droopier in its pace, and infinitely less clear in its impact. It features a black family walking around the Santa Cruz Pier carnival, playing the games, looking at the rides. It all seems strained and fake, in a way that makes you conscious that it’s supposed to be strained and fake. Even though there’s a convoluted plot reason for this effect that gets explained later, that doesn’t help at the time. The family is full of tensions, the father erratic, the mother coldly angry, the small daughter solemn and inclined to hang back from both of them. She wanders off into a funhouse by herself and there has an encounter with her doppelganger that scars her for life.

Thirty years later there the daughter is again as an adult (Lupita Nyong’o), Adelaide Wilson, with her family that now includes her husband (Winston Duke), daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son (Evan Alex). They’re clearly well-off financially. They’re off to a vacation house in the same area of Southern California that will inevitably bring them back to the Santa Cruz pier.

They meet up at the beach with rich friends, a white family of maximum dysfunction including alcoholic mom (Elizabeth Moss), sneering dad (Tim Heidecker), and nasty teen twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). These people are so grotesque it’s distracting, and therefore must be meaningful — they represent terrible white bourgeois values that have infected Adelaide’s family. The two dads, for example, are in a consumer goods competition for the best new stuff, with white dad always winning but black dad an eager contender. His new fixation is boats, a well-known moneypit sign of conspicuous consumption.

Only Adelaide is inclined to be uneasy about everything; her traumatic past, her premonitions of coming mayhem, and her current vaguely troubled family. Her son, for example, hardly talks, always wears an animal mask, obsesses over a failed trick with a broken lighter, and seems out of it to the point that Adelaide tutors him lovingly in how to move in simple rhythm with the classic hiphop song from the 1990s that’s playing in the car, “I Got 5 On It.”

You can’t miss the allegorical function of Adelaide’s uneasiness: she’s uncomfortable at both supernatural creepiness that’s building, and also at the related way her family is taking on the characteristics associated with wealthy and corrupted white people. She’s very much opposed to her husband’s new boat, for example.

Finally after a lot of build-up you get to the arrival of the red-uniformed doppelgangers, standing silently hand-in-hand at the end of the driveway of the vacation house. This home invasion section of the plot is pretty scary for a while. Hard to beat doppelgangers or violent home invasions for gut-level scares. Lupita Nyong’o does a great job playing her own frightening double, with wide gelid eyes and a voice that sounds eerily grating, creating words out of painful gulps of air from a throat that doesn’t function properly.

The voice evokes several sources: the “death rattle” of the dying, the Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” about the experimental attempt to hypnotize a man and continue communicating during the end of life process: “the sound [of the voice] was harsh and broken and hollow” as if it came from “a deep cavern in the earth.” Also, not least, Richard Pryor’s celebrated “I forgot how to breathe!” routine.

The multiple allusions work well here, but burden the rest of the film as it tries to point in many directions at once, all of which require parsing. For example, the “Hands Across America” motif is promising, starting from Adelaide’s unhappy girlhood when the PSAs for it are playing on TV. But it doesn’t pay off in really disturbing effects, even in the final shots that are supposed to be chilling, when lines of red-uniformed doppelgangers stretch across the landscape of America in helicopter shots, all stiffly and silently holding hands. Let’s say it’s one of those ideas that’s good on paper.

It represents a real-life, minor historical event of 1986, a supposedly heartwarming publicity stunt involving Americans getting together to span the entire nation with hand-holding citizens in order to raise both money for and consciousness of the homeless problem. Peele doesn’t tell us in the film that there weren’t quite enough willing hands to span the whole continent in 1986, leaving big gaps out in the Western states where the end person in line held out a hand to empty air. They didn’t raise all that much money either, considering the amount of media coverage “Hands Across America” got. But it made a lot of people delude themselves that they were really “doing something” to address the catastrophe of economic injustice of Reagan Era government policies. The majority of Americans were in no way connecting government excesses to the disastrous homeless problem in the first place.

Are audiences in general supposed to remember “Hands Across America” as the feel-good empty gesture that it was, so they can connect the dots thematically in Us? I mean, I remember it, but I remember a lot of terrible things that went down in the 1980s. And for me, “getting it” wasn’t in any way helping to make the movie more exciting after the initial home invasion scenes. I got the Us/U.S. thing too, and wished I hadn’t.

Even Jordan Peele gets tellingly vague in an NPR interview when asked what the film is about. After all, Us is constantly indicating that it means something big:

I think a lot of people are catching onto the fact that there’s a lot of United States/American imagery in this. And the duality of this country and our beliefs and our demons, I think, is on display. But I think Us is bigger than that. And I think one of the reasons this movie has an expansiveness is because “us” is subjective. Everybody thinks of the term “us” in different ways — it can be “us” the family, “us” the town, “us the country, “us” humanity. I think in the simplest form, the very nature of “us” means there is a “them,” right? So that is what this movie is about to me, is that: Whatever your “us” is, we turn “them” into the enemy, and maybe “we” are our own worst enemy.

Well, never mind. Everybody else likes Us, and it’s a big hit. I’ll still be there for Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone series, hoping that the April Fool’s Day premiere won’t turn out to be significant in the worst way. Us was inspired by a 1960 Twilight Zone episode called “Mirror Image,” so among the many other things the film is aiming to do, it also provides a nice publicity hook for Peele’s new show.

Personally, I’m hoping Jordan Peele returns to the inspiration of lived experiences as his primary source of horror. A perfect example of this is the mesmerizing party scene in Get Out, at the country house of wealthy white liberals whose repeated expressions of admiration for famous black figures like Barack Obama and Tiger Woods only adds to the discordant symphony of wrong notes, was one Peele said he had to get on film because he’d attended a version of that party. Reality is horror, especially these days when we’re seeing apocalyptic ends everywhere we look. We need directors who are aware of it and ready to show us to ourselves in plain and limpid ways that don’t require long third-act explanations.