Jordan Peele has done it again. If there was any doubt in your mind before, then the talented writer/director will surely erase that suspicion and cement himself as a modern master of horror with his sophomore feature, Us…
…After winning the academy award for best screenplay with Get Out, it was going to be difficult for Peele’s next film to live up to expectations. And while Us is indeed quite different from the director’s first film, it stands on its own as something truly special. The surface of the plot is simple. Us takes place in Santa Cruz, where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family, Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) are on vacation at Adelaide’s old home. But what starts as a sunny day at the beach quickly turns to a nightmare as doppelgängers that look just like the family show up at their home with one intent: to kill Adelaide and her family.
If there is one thing that I can say with absolutely certainty, it is that Lupita Nyong’o is a brilliant star who will undoubtedly be this year’s Oscar contender for horror fans (let’s just hope it goes better than the pounding on the table for Toni Collette in Hereditary). But in all seriousness, Nyong’o delivers a raw performance that is utterly captivating, and at times even terrifying. The actress goes to stunning lengths to play not one but two characters, Adelaide and her alternate self, Red, and she does both spectacularly by pulling us in with sympathetic terror, and then horrifying us with a slow descent into animalistic rage. In fact, all four stars deserve a round of applause, because each is playing two personalities: their “normal” self, and this other that is nothing but gleeful hatred and anger. Casting did a phenomenal job in finding cast members who cannot only play emotionally complicated people, but can flip a switch and appear as unnerving, human monsters. Joseph is particularly creepy as her alternate, Umbrae, perhaps the most gleeful and sadistic of the bunch. Just the way she raises her eyebrows is enough to get under my skin.
Us should not be but will unfortunately be compared to Get Out, though it is not at all like Peele’s previous film. While Get Out was a slow build into a nightmarish third act, Us is a tension-filled horror show from the very beginning. The film opens in the 1980s, following Adelaide as a little girl with her parents at the boardwalk, where she has her first encounter with her other. Peele immediately sets the mood with some masterful cinematography from Mike Gioulakis, using slow, revealing movements of the camera, which consistently builds suspense throughout the film. You’ll be glad to that the camera creeps through the sets, because the production design in Us is so rich with detail, you could watch this film over and over again and find something new every time, which is something you’ll probably want to do. Accompanied by the haunting score by Michael Abels, Peele sets the stage for a frightening confrontation where, once things get going, the terror never lets up.
Us, as Peele himself has stated, is more of a classic horror film, a throwback to sci-fi creature features like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and inspired by the Twilight Zone episode, “Mirror Image”, which also deals with doppelgangers. Unlike those examples though, Us is a ferocious film. The violence in Us comes quick and sudden, including one scene which sees four people taken out with a snap of the fingers in a fairly gruesome manner. The villains in this film are so relentless, so substantially evil, that you’ll practically want to jump up and pump your fist each time one of them is dispatched. A lot of that is because of how much the family is forced to fight to save themselves. Over and over again, Adelaide and her family are forced to match or even surpass the ferocity of their attackers, using whatever they can, whether it be golf clubs, blunt objects, or even a pair of handcuffs. This is a vicious film that will keep you tethered to your seat, eyes wide, all the way until the final seconds. Remember that scene in Get Out Daniel Kaluuya scratches the cotton out of the chair? I have a feeling many theaters will replacing seats after the opening weekend of Us.
The odd thing about the intensity of this film is that it is also surprisingly funny, though not always in the right way. Some have argued that Get Out inserts a little too much comedy at times, but Peele shows improvement here, perfectly balancing the comedy and horror so that neither distracts from the other, but rather melds together seamlessly. Duke is especially hilarious as Gabe, often allowing the audience to laugh when the tension becomes too much. That being said, Us does have its unintentionally funny moments, mostly revolving around the “others” as I’ll call them. We don’t really know what these things are, but outside of Red, their language is composed of guttural shrieks, grunts, and odd laughter, which works at times, but can be a tad silly at others. Granted, it may just be the immature viewers like myself who find Winston Duke grunting at someone from across a lake funny, but I digress. It isn’t enough to take away from the film and certainly doesn’t ruin the experience, but does occasionally put a damper on the scares. Though you could argue that the best horror films are unintentionally funny at times, because film is, at the end of the day, all about entertainment, right?
But don’t be fooled. Us isn’t just mindless, entertaining horror fare. Like most great horror films, Us is like our own skin, with many layers, and in a film about doppelgangers, Peele, er, peels away those layers one by one to see what’s underneath. Which is really just a graphic way of saying that this film is full of complex symbolism and metaphors that will require multiple viewings to unravel. Luckily, Us is damn fun, and worth the time. Because I’m avoiding spoilers, I won’t dig into the meaning of it all, but between imagery of white rabbits, red bodysuits, and the idea of being spiritually “tethered” with your other, there is a lot to unpack here. I’m talking a warehouse full of boxes here. But if anything is for certain, Peele is clearly once again making a commentary on society, though from a different standpoint than Get Out, this time focusing on the primal darkness of our subconscious and the idea of ourselves as our own worst enemy. In a time when America is corrupted with the same anger and hatred harbored by the doppelgangers, it’s a poignant observation to make and one that will stick with you long after you leave the theater.
What will undoubtedly be the heaviest criticism on Peele’s film is the fact that it is incredibly vague towards the end. Peele is the definition of an auteur, a director who instills meaning into every image, and in doing so, isn’t trying to hold your hand throughout the process. The reveal and explanation for what is happening and why feels as if it’s missing a few pieces, but I suspect the answers are hidden somewhere in the film. Like I already said, Us will take many viewings to fully comprehend. It’s a bloody blast for those who just want to have a good time, but also works as an intelligent puzzle that film geeks like myself will spend hours trying to piece together until we can make the pieces fit. The confusing explanation does not hinder the overall enjoyment of the film though, as Peele is careful to make Us as digestible as possible for those that just want to have a good time. And besides, horror is always better when we aren’t spoon-fed logical reasoning.
All in all, Us is a fierce masterpiece. This is edge of your seat entertainment at its finest, and Peele has once again proved that he belongs in the circle of the next great masters of horror. Based on the sci-fi horror tones and intricate ideas behind the film, I think it’s safe to say that we should all be very excited for Peele’s reboot of Twilight Zone. CBS has found the perfect showrunner for the job.
By Matt Konopka