Writer-director-producer Jordan Peele carries the weight of expectation with his sophomore “Us.” After all, his debut, 2017’s “Get Out was an incredibly well-received genre mashup that dealt with race division in America and topped a ridiculous amount of critics top ten lists.
In “Us,” Peele sets his sights in telling the story of a black family on a summer vacation in Calfornia. Mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), dad Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids — Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) — head to the Santa Cruz and meet up with their white friends the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). A fun time is had by all, except Adelaide. She’s still haunted by her childhood visit to this same beach resort, it ended up with her being traumatized by, well, better not give too much away — Let’s just say Adelaide ended up seeing something she hasn’t been able to unsee for thirty years now.
If you’ve seen the trailer you do know that the Wilsons are eventually confronted by unexpected visitors in red that turn out to be their horrific and evil dopplegangers. What is Peele trying to say? Is he trying to ask us, as a country, to look into the mirror and try to realize we are our own worst enemies? That’s the main puzzlement that, quite frankly, has bewildered critics and audiences ever since the film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival just a week ago. Whatever thematic resonance Peele is going for here feels rather undeveloped. ,Maybe an additional viewing could put things into perspective or maybe “Us” is just Peele overreaching and not being able to have a firm grasp of his own material. Who knows, but “Us” does work better as a full-fledged thriller.
It’s all led by Duke and, especially, Nyong’o’s performances. The latter, an actress of considerably imposing talent, inflicts a real sense of haunting into Peele’s frames. Much like his main character in “Get Out,” Peele’s camera deep focuses on his lead’s eyes every chance he gets. And what eyes! Aided by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Peele gives his film a surreal and nightmarish look with pertinently memorable frames unveiled every few minutes. The color scheme here is pure dread, focusing especially on reds and browns.
With “Us” Peele confirms that he will not be a one-hit-wonder director. This latest effort lacks the socio-political and satirical undertones of “Get Out,” but as a filmmaker who can expertly stage horror, he is second-to-none — his talent for shot composition is quite frankly impressive for such a young filmmaker. However, after an edge-of-your-seat first 100 minutes, Peele’s ambitions do get the best of him — he can't quite close it out and the film’s messy final 15 minutes feel overtly expository. Alas, it turns out that “Us,” quite ironically, is confused about its own identity. [B/B+]