Jordan Peele may have risen to fame as part of the sketch comedy duo of Key and Peele, but that is destined to be a footnote in his biography. With Get Out, his debut as a writer-director, Peele created a pop culture sensation that garnered four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and a win for Best Original Screenplay for Peele. It was a remarkable feat for a low budget horror film, a genre that rarely gets any awards recognition. Now Peele returns with his highly anticipated second feature Us, and once again Peele has crafted a horror film that grips the audience with horrific suspense while thematically stimulating the mind. Us may not feature as concise of a social commentary as Get Out, but it’s still an incredibly effective, ambitious, and terrifying work of horror filmmaking.
The film begins in 1986 in Santa Cruz, California where young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders the boardwalk her feuding parents. The young girl drifts away from her parents and wanders into beachside haunted house-like ride and within the creepy hall of mirrors encounters something that will haunt her throughout the years.
In present day, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is a fully grown woman happily married to Gabe (Winston Duke) with two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They’ve travelled to Adelaide’s family home in Santa Cruz for a little vacation, though returning to coastal community has awakened old anxieties for Adelaide. Before she can convince her husband to leave, a group of four strangers appear at the house, dressed in red jumpsuits and carrying gold-colored scissors. Sitting before this family four is an inverse family of four, a quartet of murderous doppelgangers. Who are they? They’re us.
Like he did with Get Out, Jordan Peele deftly establishes a creepy tone while withhold explanations for the bizarre happenings on screen. The ambiguity is part of the terror behind Us. There’s no easy answers for the phenomenon occurring on the screen. Peele blends bewilderment with escalating tension as the confrontation between the dual families turns more and more violent. What makes Peele such a great horror filmmaker is his keen awareness of the genre’s tropes. He knows what the audience is thinking and is able to toy with them, manipulating expectations so each shocking moment lands with maximum impact. Another tool that Peele employs masterfully is humor. Us is often quite funny and Peele uses comedic elements to relieve the relentless tension just a bit, getting the audience to exhale a little bit before hitting them with the next big jolt.
Us features an incredible cast delivering incredible work. The star of the film is undoubtedly Lupita Nyong’o, who shines in both of her roles as innocent and evil incarnations of Adelaide. Nyong’o is hero and villain in this mind-bending horror film and the Academy Award winner shines bringing forth the stark duality of these characters. As her husband, Winston Duke is equally impressive. In early scenes, Duke adopts a kind of goofy dad persona complete with really bad jokes that make his children cringe. The supporting cast also excels in Peele’s film, namely the duo of Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as family friends of Adelaide and Gabe also vacationing in Santa Cruz. Moss is as good as expected but it’s Heidecker who really delivers the more impressive turn of the duo. Of course, Heidecker, like Peele before him, is best known for his work in comedy but it’s switching up his comedic persona that really highlights the versatility of Heidecker as an actor and he gets a couple of incredible scene-stealing moments.
It is when it gets towards the conclusion that Us stumbles a little bit in trying to explain the bewildering events that we’ve been witnessing. It doesn’t fall apart by any means, and the film is so consistently engaging that the masterful work on display isn’t diminished by some reveals that seem incomplete. But Peele’s ambitious work of horror has so many different themes swirling around it ranging from the duality of man to the role of those overlooked and ignored by society (something that strongly ties into the film’s ‘80s opening) that more than one viewing is required to fully parse the various thematic threads running throughout Us.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Us proves to be more divisive for audiences than Get Out as Jordan Peele ramps up the ambition with his second feature and the film is by no means aiming to be a real crowd-pleaser. From start to finish, though, Us is truly captivating cinema, a creepy and horrific tale that builds and builds while rarely giving the audience a moment to breathe. When it’s all over, everything that you just watched swirls around in your head for hours as the hilarious, horrific, and mind-bending events of Us remain with you well past the film’s conclusion. The success of Get Out wasn’t a fluke. Jordan Peele is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, regardless of genre. I can’t wait to see what he does next, but until then I’ll still be haunted by Us.
Another masterful work of horror from writer-director Jordan Peele, Us is captivating cinema with plenty of humor to undercut the unrelenting horror as well as boasting an incredible performance from Lupita Nyong’o.