As if winning an Academy Award for best original screenplay for 2017’s Get Out wasn’t enough to prove his mettle, Jordan Peele opens his follow-up film Us with one of the best opening scenes in recent memory. A taut mini-thriller of its own, the scene acts as a prologue which introduces the main character, Adelaide, and sets in motion events that the film will follow until its conclusion. With very little dialogue, but densely rich visuals and enough easter eggs to spend an entire runtime analyzing, it is Jordan Peele at his very best and a precursor of what is to come.
Post prologue, Us takes its time to lower the tension, fast forward 33 years, and introduce us to the rest of the Wilson family. While some may feel that it is a bit long and hurts the pacing, it feels necessary in order to establish who this family is prior to their bizarro counterparts arriving. Peele does a great job of putting his characters in scenarios that allow us to quickly understand the family dynamics and the nuances of each character. Lupita Nyong’o lays the groundwork for a character that seems normal to others in the film but is unsettled (which we know to be true from the prologue). Winston Duke provides all the dad humor that a film can provide while Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph are equally believable as the kids that consistently roll their eyes at said dad humor. Without this setup, we wouldn’t even superficially understand the others that show up to terrorize our characters and also wouldn’t be invested in the characters. So while some may wish the movie had sped up the pace, these family moments are wholly necessary to both our understanding of, and commitment to, the story.
That’s not to say that Us is completely free from pacing issues. The thrilling moments seem to pop in and out like a game of whack-a-mole. Instead of a steady, linear increase in tension throughout the film, the intensity in Us follows more of a stairstep pattern. After edge-of-your-seat moments, there is almost always a leveling off where you begin to wonder where things are going next and when they are going to pick back up. This gives the film a somewhat uneven feel at times and this is exacerbated by oddly-timed attempts at humor that can sometimes snap the audience out of the moment. This combined with the inconsistent pacing pattern may leave some feeling a bit disoriented as the events of the film play out.
Where Peele truly excels is bringing his vision to life on the screen. Every single shot in Us feels not only intentional but multi-layered. There are no wasted shots and nothing is ever superficial. Everything has meaning. From a commercial playing on a TV, to a shirt that’s being worn, to a song that’s being played, Peele understands what it takes to immerse the audience in the world he is building. This ambition for world building is what makes Us so fun to dissect, but is also the driver for why audiences may leave the theater disappointed. After the pointed social commentary of Get Out, it was clear that Peele would be a director with something to say. But where the message in Get Out was sharp, concise, and folded neatly into the plot, in Us, the social themes layered in cause the plot to balloon in the last twenty minutes. As with anything that expands too rapidly, tears and holes begin to form. Asking the audience to ignore those flaws or not explore the holes that appear will be a bridge too far for some. And with metaphors and commentary that feel fairly nebulous, there will be dozens of interpretations regarding the true meaning of the film. Which begs the question, was the need for this nebulous commentary worth the degradation of the plot?
Us is essentially bookended by its two best scenes — which happen to be two of the best in recent thriller memory. They are shining examples of Peele’s filmmaking skills and his ability to combine all aspects of film — visuals, editing, acting, story, and sound — into moments of pure enjoyment. In between these moments, is sandwiched a very good thriller that stays fairly small and compact until the end. Aided by a truly great performance from Lupita Nyong’o, Us is sure to be regarded as one of the better modern thrillers. But in order to truly evaluate the film, you will have to face off against yourself and decide how much of a questionable plot you are willing to look past in order to enjoy everything else Us has to offer.