Us (Universal Pictures, R)

Jordan Peele makes what the press has lately referred to as “thought provoking popcorn movies,” a moniker seemingly meant to elevate the status of mainstream, corporate films into a more respectable, Oscar-worthy domain which, to me, sounds more like an apology for both films as entertainment and films as art. Once this kind of compromising approach becomes the directive of a film from the outset, the result is unfortunately and fittingly middling, too daunted to fully engage with thematic material and unwilling to completely acquiesce to the less credible aspects of its central premise.

To its credit, Us has a very strong opening. An enigmatic line of text briefly alludes to the various tunnel systems beneath the United States, some of which apparently exist for no reason, hinting something lurks below. At a beachfront amusement park reminiscent of Coney Island, a father has just won a prize for his young daughter, Adelaide (Madison Curry). After momentarily being left unattended, Adelaide wanders off, as if in a trance. Wearing her newly won, oversized Thriller t-shirt and carrying a blood-red candy apple, she arrives at a spooky house of mirrors on the outskirts of the park with a painted forest façade. At the peak of our immersion in this fantastical and delightfully freaky Snow White funhouse, Adelaide comes face to face with her double, after which the film abruptly cuts from her horrified reaction to the opening credits, which feature a close-up shot of a white rabbit, elegant titles in red font, and a chorus of children singing creepy Latin music. Peele is well versed in the mechanisms of films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen that carry a somewhat unsettling sophistication in terms of stylistic choices and make us feel as though we are at the mercy of cruel, demonic forces, ourselves.

The film continually proves itself along these same lines with inspired choices in set design, eerily fitting music, cinematography that is both functional and artistic, sharp editing, and cheekily clever directorial choices. Without a doubt, Peele is enormously talented and, as faulty as this film can get in terms of content, there’s no question as to the quality of execution. Although it would be unfair to give Peele all of the credit, as his cast gives equally impressive performances. Lupita Nyong’o holds the entire story together as a grownup Adelaide, revisiting the locale of her traumatic childhood experience in the hopes that, with the past behind her, she and her family can enjoy a vacation at their cozy summer home. Winston Duke provides most of the humor as the lighthearted, knucklehead dad, and the kids, played by Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph, both carry more weight than most child actors typically can when it comes to the emotionally heavy scenes, and for most of the film, that is the case. The “Tethered” (doppelgängers) don’t take long to make their presence known to the family, and soon enough the world.

But as creepy as these beings are, and as well suited Peele’ direction and Nyong’o’s acting are for their portrayal, they can’t do the necessarily lifting tasked to them. In no time at all, these evil twins, as it were, become generic threats in a cat-and-mouse game, walking towards their victims like Michael Meyers and doing creepy things for the sake of doing them. Taken at face value, it’s a serviceable horror film, but in that case you might as well watch The Strangers. The mythical implications and vague hinting at themes of classism lead us to expect more, but those commentaries never come to full fruition, and Peele flinches from the challenging themes that made Get Out hard to categorize but also thoroughly brilliant.

When the prolonged suspense and spurts of violence dissipate into the last act, the repetitive plot gives way to an unsatisfying resolution. Just as the movie shies away from using the doppelgängers too metaphorically, it won’t ground them in reality, either. Underground classrooms and abandoned subway platforms allude to what may be a government experiment, and yet the Tethered possess many traits that suggest a supernatural origin. Are they clones, or have “shadow people” always existed in this universe? Who created them and how did they get here? The indeterminate nature of these horrors requires too much imagination on the part of the audience, to the point that their origin and significance abstracts into meaninglessness.

The surface-level success of Us, all due to technical skill, makes it a special kind of disappointment. The truly creepy, unsettling parts of the film compels one to return, but has nothing to stay for. | Nic Champion

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