There is much to like about Jordan Peele’s 2018 horror film, “Us,” that which he directed and wrote. First off, many of the shots are meticulously filmed and delightfully choreographed. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (and beach) work quite well here, especially the latter, in the shot (for example) from overhead when the family walks on the sand casting shadows so lovely, they seem to come from a painting. The movie is filled with these “filmatic portraits,” ranging from zombie-doubles holding hands across the landscape, to rabbits in cages in strange underground hallways…illustrating for us that deliberate positioning of the camera and the texture of the pictures we see are more important aspects of a given film than its star-power or computer-generated effects. Typically, “horror movies” don’t offer us this kind of royal treatment, and trust me, it is refreshing.
As for a plot, and the movie as a whole, I am torn. The beginning and the end are spectacular. The middle sags. I actually got bored, but I think it is important to discuss why Peele loses the viewer between the bookends. His ending is such a twist, so glorious and majestic, that it explains the middle in a way that makes the spectator reevaluate everything. What we need to determine is whether or not the reevaluation is a “good witch” or a “bad witch.” In other words, when we go back over everything, is it an aesthetic and wonderfully pedagogical experience in itself, as offered with “The Sixth Sense?” Or does it simply make us say, “Wow. That was rich. Why did I have to go through the mud just to get to the good part?”
Again, I am torn. Without giving the plot away in a direct summary (gosh…that would be boring) it is more intriguing to explore here, one of those old (but always good) philosophical writing questions. If my ending justifies the middle, was the middle worth it if on its own, it fails?
I am more on the “no” side. With “The Sixth Sense,” I was captivated with the middle part as it was playing out in its own “real time.” The end was a cherry on top, and the general mechanics of this are simple. The story I thought it was, remained consistent with the parameters I was first given. Peele does not do this. He keeps changing “the base of the house” as we call it in Creative Writing 101. For those of you who never signed up for one of these, the universal “rule” or “truth” is that with fiction (or film) you can invent any world with any rules you like. However, you can not change the “rules” halfway-in to make your plot move forward. It cheats the reader or viewer, and there really aren’t any exceptions. The thing that often makes a piece move successfully, and retain viewer or reader interest, is sticking the protagonist in a metaphorical “box,” and seeing him or her work a way out of it…inevitably leading to another box until the climax. To continue this old metaphor, we confirm here that the box changes. The world containing it can’t.
Example. You can’t have a character terrorizing a family in a work of realistic crime drama, and then when our “clever antagonist” is about to be defeated, offer him magical powers. That is as “illegal” and as transparently bad as saying at the end, “It was all a dream.”
In “Us,” the viewer gets caught up in multiple bases of houses. First it is a one on one fear film. Then family on family, so far, ok, yet all too soon it turns into the idea that ALL the families suddenly have doubles, lessening the credibility and intensity of the initial players. If it happens to everyone, the family we have been sitting with is just one of the many. Plus, the other family we zone in on isn’t nearly as interesting, and so now we have a “zombie” template, where everything is just ugly target practice. Sure, there are still cool bloody kill shots and those jack in the box jumps and starts, but I started with intensive, psychological one on one, and broadened to dumb-ass mass monster stuff. In other words, the middle wasn’t scary.
That being said, the ending, again, is majestic. It does explain the multiples of doubles, making the gestalt absolutely brilliant. Problem? The center of this thing, before the unmasking, was horribly slow, regular, nondescript, generic, and almost comically poor. If you give us a cupcake with awesome frosting, yet a body that is stale, many of us won’t even get to the glorious filling in the center. And those of us that do, will still have crumbs on our face and a bad aftertaste in our mouths.
That being said…I still can’t get that awesome ending out of my head, so very clever, that I wish I could have been brilliant enough to come up with it. Altogether, yes, I am torn, possibly for good reason, maybe for what many would consider trivial, but I must say in the end, bravo on this one. Can’t wait for Peele’s next project.