By: Kevin Jordan
My lips are mostly sealed.
I often struggle in these reviews with how much to reveal when discussing a movie. Okay, I sometimes struggle. On one hand, nobody likes spoilers. Even for movies that are obvious and preordained crap, people want to be surprised and decide for themselves. Incidentally, these are the same people who have to touch the hot stove no matter how many people warn them that the stove will burn them, but that is a discussion for another time. On the other hand, a review by its very nature spoils movies. It’s right there in the word review. If all you want to know about a movie is whether or not you should see it, skip to the rating. The rating is simply the recommendation by the critic. If you want to know the why behind the rating, that is what the rest of the review is for. The review is the defense of the rating and if it didn’t contain specifics (i.e. spoilers), it would be an empty defense.
Every now and then, I advise you to wait to read my review until after you have watched the movie. This is not just to avoid specific plot spoilers, but spoilers of any kind. For example, if I told you that a movie had a twist at the end, but not the twist itself, I would still be spoiling part of the movie for you. If you knew a twist was coming, you would be second-guessing everything in the film or trying to divine the twist throughout the film, plus I would be robbing you of the surprise of a twist happening at all.
To me, the purpose of a review is to have an in-depth discussion of a film with other people who have seen the film. If you read one of my reviews prior to watching a film, a lot of it won’t make much sense. And, even if it does, you can’t agree or disagree because you have no basis on which to form an opinion. If you read after watching the film, you can agree with me vigorously or disagree with me vehemently and back that up with evidence from the film. Reading a review where the critic simply regurgitates a summary of the film and offers no substantive breakdown of the film and its elements is a complete waste of time, in addition to being a bore. I know I am guilty of this sometimes, but I do my best to restrict that to forgettable movies and cover with jokes so as to still provide something worth reading.
By now, you should have realized two things. One – I have not yet mentioned the movie I am reviewing, thus have not spoiled Us for you yet. Two – I am about to. This is my really long-winded way of giving you a SPOILER ALERT, but I really did want to cover the topic of spoilers. Too many people get mad at critics’ reviews for containing spoilers, but those people have nobody but themselves to blame. Adding the bolded words SPOILER ALERT in my reviews is really just for people like those who continue to insist Bridesmaids was anything more than rancid garbage.
(If you are still reading at this point, you have either seen Us, love my reviews too much to wait, or are beyond help. Godspeed to all three of you.)
Us falls into the cabin-in-the-woods genre of horror flicks. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) are vacationing at cabin near the California coast. They are accosted and terrorized by a family of four dressed in red and try to avoid being murdered by the red family. But, this is not your ordinary cabin-in-the-woods flick. Like Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, director/writer Jordan Peele spices it up with a perfect blend of comedic relief and new takes on old tropes. What also sets it apart is that the entire film isn’t contained in the cabin and adjoining lake. It ventures outside of the familiar locales to add scope and depth to the killers and their motivation. And that is the most specifics I will give you. See? I can do twists too.
Rather than give away specifics, which really would spoil this movie (if you still insist on reading this before watching the movie), I want to give away how good are some of the elements of the film. First, much like Hitchcock and other meticulous directors, Peele has taken great care to ensure everything you see in the film has purpose, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Even better is that many of those things have multiple purposes, serving as a gag in one scene and a vital survival instrument in the next scene. This perfectly fits the theme of the movie – duality. From the Wilsons to their neighbors to the killers to masks to rooms to vehicles, everything is setup to be something else later in the movie.
Second is the comedic relief. The best horror films adeptly break up the tension with exquisitely-timed comedy so that the audience doesn’t poop its collective pants. Leading the laughs in Us is Duke, who delivers some priceless dad comedy that will have you cackling while simultaneously nodding in recognition. There are also really good asides that give us a breather from the murder-chase of the Wilsons, all done in ways that make us giggle or cheer, depending on the characters involved.
Third is the acting. Nearly all of the actors in the film portray two characters (duality), even the kids, and all of the characters are fantastic. To be fair, most of the second characters have no dialogue, so the degree of difficulty is somewhat reduced, but there isn’t a character you will forget. Standing out is Nyong’o, who is the one actor portraying two speaking characters, both of which she knocks out of the park. But I was particularly impressed by the emotional range displayed by the entire cast, adding a really visceral element to all of the scenes and interactions. Performances like that are another reason why comedic relief is so important, lest we crawl under our seats to escape the tension.
Above all, the writing and production are amazing. Us is able to show something early in the film, then make you forget about it by thoroughly absorbing you into the film. Like how you forget that Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty tells you he is dead at the start of the film. When it comes back around, the revelation isn’t just a light bulb above your head, it’s all the light bulbs. Amazingly, there are dozens of things in the film my friend and I brought up on the drive home that fit this description. It was one of the rare times where breaking down the film on the ride home made the film better, like a reverse Shyamalan.
Hopefully, you heeded my advice and are reading this after seeing Us. Simply talking about things coming back around or the theme of duality is enough to spoil Us to some degree and it is too good a film to risk more than that. Maybe in six months, we can revisit this film and provide concrete examples of the duality and great dad jokes or, debate whether the film is brilliant or ruins itself after the last reveal. And if you are reading this and still haven’t seen the film, remember, you only have yourself to blame.
Rating: Worth paying for multiple viewings because you definitely missed something the first time through. I’m sure I did.