How do you follow a pop culture juggernaut like Get Out? After not only smashing the box office but earning a screenplay Oscar, Jordan Peele is ready to haunt our collective nightmares again with Us–while also proving he’s the perfect guy to reboot The Twilight Zone.
Like the best Twilight Zone episodes, Us has both twists and social commentary. Jordan Peele has said before that he wasn’t going to do another film about race, so for his sophomore feature he expands his scope and tackles the entire United States in a film that asks us to look within, and see the danger we ourselves have become. To this end, we begin with a prologue set in 1986, where a young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) watches a commercial for Hands Across America–a campaign to make a human chain across the continental United States–before stumbling across a hall of mirrors under a Santa Cruz pier. She finds more than mere reflections, an event that leaves her traumatized.
Some 30 years later, the burden of that encounter still haunts an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who returns to Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) for the summer. Jordan Peele shows he is adept at writing compelling and fully-formed characters, as he instantly makes you fall in love with this family. Sure, they are not perfect. Gabe is awkward and has an endless supply of dad jokes (“You don’t need the internet. You have the outernet!”), and the kids fight constantly, but you feel the love between them. Adelaine has a bad feeling about this trip, and a series of eerie coincidences don’t help alleviate her concerns.
After a trip to the beach with their friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), the Wilsons return home to find four shadowy figures standing in their driveway. It’s the doppelgänger spotted in the trailers, wearing creepy blood-red jumpsuits and gloves, and sporting very sharp scissors. The sight of Lupita staring in horror at herself is the latest instance of what should become known as the “Peele stare, as instantly iconic as Daniel Kaluuya’s hypnotized, glazed expression in Get Out.
If Get Out was a victim of the “is it really horror?” question, Jordan Peele made sure Us wouldn’t fall for the same trick. This is a horror movie through and through, full of references to everything from Friday the 13th and Night of the Living Dead to more recent fare like Black Swan. Like Hereditary last year, the best scares come from simply being able to glimpse something in the dark corners of the screen. The home invasion sequences will make you want to cover your eyes, but the craftsmanship at hand will prevent you from looking away. However, Peele doesn’t shy away from making you laugh, with a perfectly balanced mix of horror with humor that doesn’t feel out of place. Winston Duke especially brings a necessary levity to the film, with his corny sense of humor being relatable and likeable enough to make you stop thinking about him as just the guy from Black Panther. Peele not only excels at mixing horror and humor, but at writing smart characters. Like in Get Out, the Wilsons are quick to react to the creepy figures in their driveway, and immediately call the police and start planning their stand-off.
Visually, Us is already a candidate for the most beautiful horror film of 2019, mostly thanks to cinematographer Mike Gioulakis the man responsible for the stunning It Follows. Gioulakis’s camera swirls, creeps out, and hunts the characters almost as much as their doppelgänger counterparts, and his use of light and shadow is as effective as any jump scare. Also the score, by Get Out composer Michael Abels, will haunt your nightmares for days to come, while also bringing to mind Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen, except without the demonic child.
Winston Duke may be a surprisingly convincing and likeable dad, and the kids are fantastic at playing innocent one moment, and plain evil the next, but Us works as well as it does because of one person: Lupita Nyong’o. Despite winning an Oscar six years ago, we have barely got to know her range, though between this and Little Monsters we are definitely living in the year of Lupita. She plays every emotion in the book, and every muscle in her body is used to convey those emotions. Watching her play the dual roles (like the rest of the family) of her regular self and her crazy and evil counterpart is delightful and terrifying to see, a performance to rival Toni Collette in Hereditary. In a fair world, Nyong’o would earn her second Oscar nomination with this film.
Like Get Out, it is easy and valid to enjoy Us at face value, as the film offers enough thrills, laughs, and scares to merit all praise. But this is Jordan Peele we are talking about, so the script is filled with metaphors and tiny details that demand multiple viewings to even begin to grasp the director’s full intent. The biggest theme that emerges from the movie is that of apathy and the rejection of the underprivileged in the U.S. (it isn’t a coincidence that the film’s title is written as US). However, by the time the film dumps some exposition on the audience and explains what the doppelgängers want, the logic of the film starts to fall apart somewhat. Peele isn’t interested in spelling things out, but this in turn uncovers holes in the story that may have you scratching your head as soon as you start thinking about the motivations and the meaning behind certain imagery and actions.
Despite some questionable choices, there’s no denying that Jordan Peele avoided the “sophomore slump” and has now cemented himself as one of the great contemporary horror minds. Us is not only a brilliant exploration of current-day America, but one hell of a prologue to Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Lupita Nyong’o slays in dual roles||Script crumbles a bit towards the en|
|Winston Duke plays the dad you’ve always wanted||Slightly predictable|
|Smart characters who act believably in terrifying situations||Not being able to sleep because of Us-induced nightmares|
|Beautiful cinematography and haunting score|
|Layer on layer of detail that you’ll want to uncover|