Sometimes when reviewing a movie, there is a tendency to want to give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. To tell them that you think that you saw what they were going for, even if they didn’t quite make it clear that’s where they wanted to go.
Us is a movie like that. The premise is sound, the suspense is taut, but the climax – the ‘twist’ as some might call it – just doesn’t work. The film’s closing scenes invite more questions than answers, and what answers it does provide fail to make much sense.
Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide Wilson, the matriarch of a California family that is heading for their annual vacation at their beach house. Adelaide is wary of the journey, as she has lasting memories of a traumatic experience at the pier’s amusement park, when she became separated from her parents in the fun house.
The opening scenes tell us just how scarred she is, as she emerges from it unable to speak for several days – maybe even weeks; the film makes it unclear. Her parents bicker over how to help her, but they seemed destined for unhappiness even before this.
Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) gives her a hard time, providing much of the film’s lukewarm comic relief. Unlike in writer/director Jordan Peele’s debut, Get Out, this isn’t an inherently funny film, so the jokes feel a bit forced. (The only organic moment comes when an Amazon Alexa knock off plays precisely the wrong song.) The couple’s two children are at different ends of the spectrum: daughter Zora is a budding track star, son Jason seems to be a bit ADD.
They meet up with friends at the beach, a family that seems a little too affluent, and a little too blasé. Jason gets separated from the family and Adelaide panics, almost irrationally. It is clear that she’s not going to make it through this trip without hourly anxiety. However, her husband is far more concerned with what kind of car his buddy just bought than his spouse’s mental health.
When they return home for the evening, a mysterious family appears in their driveway, seeming to taunt them by just standing there. Gabe plays the macho father figure and goes out to scare them off, but when they become aggressive, we see just how little bravado Gabe really has.
From here on out, depending on your view of SPOILERS, what little I offer of what comes next might be considered as such. Discussing the film in any depth requires divulging that the skulking family is in fact ‘shadows’ of the Wilson family: clones built in underground laboratories. The project was abandoned however, when those performing it learned that their subjects had no souls: they could clone the body, but not the spirit.
Now the ‘shadows’ want out. They don’t want to be cooped up underground, and they want the lives occupied by their tethered brethren. The fact that they barely can speak, and function more as things that go bump in the night than as articulate villains is no matter.
There’s a suggestion here that the shadows are what the well-to-do are ignoring in their everyday lives. There are people out there, just like us, who aren’t having such an easy go of things. Red, Adelaide’s shadow, recounts the difficulties of her upbringing and how that is meant to be representative of her people. And later, we see other shadows trying to ‘enjoy’ the activities in which their tethers are engaging, but not being fulfilled in doing so.
Perhaps this is an allegory for how we go through our lives doing something that feels meaningful, but is merely a distraction. This would seem an odd message for a filmmaker whose career depends on entertaining an audience, so I’m not certain that’s the intent.
Or it could be that people who have the same make-up, but are subject to different circumstances, do not enjoy similar advantages. Is their fate situational? Environmental? Or just predestined? The messaging here is so unclear that we are left to scrape for something to establish a footing.
As the film follows the Wilson family, they flee their ‘shadows’, seek refuge at their friends’ house, and then return to their own beach bungalow, with all sorts of carnage along the way. But the carnage largely seems to be purely for shock value – there is no narrative that really draws a line through the events, and in some cases, the scenes are just puzzling.
For instance, one character’s actions suggest that the tethered can control one another’s movements. But there is only one moment in which this potentially game-changing tactic is employed. Either they can or can’t, and allowing them to do so only once seems like a convenient dodge.
Also a question is when the the cloning experiment stopped. Both Adelaide and her children were cloned, but the story told by Adelaide’s tether suggests they suffered underground for years, despite her son only being 7 or 8 years old (by my estimation). There are people far older than Adelaide that emerge from underground, so this timeline seems sketchy.
Perhaps the recurring theme of Jeremiah 11:11 is meant to offer an apocalyptic explanation: “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” Have the people on the surface gone so far astray that there is a higher power at work in obliterating their existence?
All this is a lot to ponder, but it is rendered moot by a twist at the end that sends the whole movie off the rails. While we are supposed to be left questioning everything we just saw, I instead was questioning the twist itself. It feels like the work of a writer who is not confident in the power of the film, and needed to add a narrative level to elevate the story’s importance. But it doesn’t do that.
The twist (without revealing it) lacks a logical coherence within the story. Some earlier events click in our mind once it is revealed, but several others seem totally preposterous in its wake. Peele showed that he has bold ideas in his first film, and his visual style carries over with sufficient power in his second. And Lupita Nyong’o shows that she can hold a lead performance in a major film, echoing Toni Colette’s stunning turn in last year’s Hereditary.
Its the story here that falls short. There isn’t enough substance to shore up the weak points, and in some cases, trivial details seem to be given either short shrift, or outsized importance (I’m still wondering who made all those identical pairs of scissors). Its a thought-provoking film, but I doubt in the way that Peele intended.