Us is (almost) the ultimate follow-up to Get Out

Jordan Peele makes an ambitious, stylish horror movie that has a lot to say but not the best means to say it.

Lupita Nyong’o in Us

A common criticism of critics (!) is that they read things into a movie that simply aren’t there. As politics grow even more fractured and contentious, critics who tend to look into the sociopolitical context of a film are told that “a movie is just a movie and should be judged as such.” To tear down a jingoistic action movie for what it fails to say about the military is being facetious to some people; to look over the text-text to focus on the subtext feels like picking at a scab. And yet here comes Jordan Peele, following up his critical and commercial hit Get Out with a movie that is nothing if not metaphors ripe for the picking, a clumsy yet powerful amalgam of ideas that’s as slippery and obfuscating as Get Out was angry and obvious. The most literal-minded of audiences (the aforementioned “stick to reviewing the movies and keep politics out of it” crowd) will have trouble with Us  — but so will everyone else.

Us fits the stereotype of the “difficult second film” to a tee: it’s more ambitious, more indulgent and more serious than its predecessor, a film that makes more leaps and consequently has sloppier landings. On one hand, I think it’s great that such strange and idiosyncratic horror films are being made by major studios and seen by so many people; on the other, two movies in is a little early for Peele to start relying on so many cop-outs and shortcuts.

Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke, doing a bangup job of playing Jordan Peele XL) and her two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) head to the summer home that her family has owned since she was a little girl. Gabe likes the summer home more than anyone else, presumably in a futile attempt to show up his richer and douchier friend Josh (Tim Heidecker), who stays with his wife (Elisabeth Moss) and twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon) in a bigger, swankier house on the same lake. Adelaide isn’t particularly fond of the summer house as it conjures up memories of a time where she attended the nearby fair and was separated from her parents, somehow finding her way into a hall of mirrors where she met an exact replica of herself. When a creepy family of doppelgangers in red jumpsuits shows up at the end of their driveway, it seems more than likely that what happened over 30 years ago has something to do with it.

For about three quarters of the way, Us is exactly the movie we wanted from Jordan Peele after Get Out. It’s tightly constructed, taut, scary, with just the right amount of humour sprinkled throughout. That humour is better calibrated than in Get Out and the satire less obvious, yet the horror feels more classicist and mysterious. It was clear from the beginning (from Key and Peele, even) that Peele knows his shit and has a deep respect for it. Without pastiching, parodying and borrowing, he draws from the history of horror in a way that feels fresh even though it’s mostly reliant on the past to work. That’s true of Us, as well; even if we know the kind of movie we’re watching, we don’t really know. Filled to the brim with Easter eggs and Peele’s particular obsessions, it’s a more personal and tonally strange film than its predecessor —more comfortable with excess and indulgences.

Things start to take a turn for the sweaty in the last act as Peele moves away from the purity of pared-down horror and into… well, I can’t really explain it here without spoiling it, but suffice to say that Peele has a master plan that doesn’t quite come off. The more Peele explains and the more he starts to draw the connections, the more the film feels stiff and the more the expertly realized previous acts start to feel unconvincing. It’s clear that Peele has a lot to say about class, race, about the precarious position of America in its current state and how the scars of the past tend to get brushed under the rug, but the way he says it rings hollow. A lot of this imagery and these metaphors have fairly obvious readings, but they also feel like a grab bag of things that its creator once thought would be a great addition to the horror genre. I get why Hands Across America is in here, but do I need to?

Granted, Us shows outsized ambition and a sharp sense of style that’s unmistakable; after only two films, Peele has a signature that’s unquestionably his. The performances are stellar and the ideas are at the very least interesting, but it remains a case of a movie that has something to say without finding quite the way to say it. The opposite is much more prevalent, so I’ll give it that — it doesn’t quite work in a way that is much more difficult to pull off than the norm. Us skirts a curious line between showing a surprising amount of maturity for a mainstream horror movie of the 2010s and being extremely unconvinced that its target audience will really get it.

I’m not one of those people who particularly cares about plot twists — not all movies are puzzles to be solved. In fact, nothing turns me off faster than a film that feels the need to explain itself at length. Us spends a lot of time doing everything right and yet somehow, by the end it seems to me like it felt the need to show its work on a multiple choice question. ■

Us opens in theatres on Friday, March 22. Watch the trailer here: