By Zach Goins
March 21, 2019
After bursting onto the scene in 2017 with Get Out, director Jordan Peele is back for more with his sophomore feature, Us. While his directorial debut was certainly a thriller filled with plenty of scares, the film’s focus was its brilliant social commentary; but this time around, it’s all about the terror.
Stemming from Peele’s own childhood fear of doppelgangers, he brings the nightmare to life in Us, when the Wilson family is inexplicably confronted by deranged replicas of themselves, known as “Tethers.”
After a traumatic childhood experience in a mirror maze, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) believes she has been marked by an identical version of herself, and that danger is coming. Now, in present-day, her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) unknowingly brings the family on a vacation to the very beach where Adelaide was scarred as a child. From Adelaide’s palpable discomfort to the increasingly strange coincidences, it’s clear that something isn’t right. Gabe, Adelaide and their children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) return to their vacation home, but the peculiarity quickly turns alarming when a family of four appears in the driveway in the middle of the night. Unphased by Gabe’s hollow threats, the intruders easily take over the house and reveal themselves to be… us? The Wilson family is left equally terrified and confused, as they fight to escape with their lives and some sort of explanation for the horror that’s unfolding.
Us is without a doubt a terrifying horror movie– Peele himself tweeted as much in case there was any confusion. But classifications aside, it’s also surprisingly hilarious. With a lead as charismatic as Duke, it’s impossible not to embrace the comedy. Peele’s expert blend of both humor and horror work to balance each other out, making Us bearable for even the most cover-your-eyes viewers out there.
Duke may bring the jokes, but this is Lupita Nyong’o’s movie. For an actress as heralded as Nyong’o, it’s remarkable that this is her first true leading role, and she crushes it. Whether she’s on screen as Adelaide, Tether Adelaide, or both at the same time, Nyong’o takes complete control of every scene. Peele has assembled a stellar cast without a single weak link, but it’s a testament to Nyong’o’s abilities that she consistently rises above her co-stars and elevates each of their performances.
If audiences learned anything from Get Out, it’s that Peele is a master of incorporating clues, symbols and homages to his inspirations throughout his work, and Us certainly follows suit. Just look at the man’s outfits– he’s dressing up as Jack Torrance from The Shining on the Us press tour! With this understanding, it’s all but impossible to sit back and relax during the film, simply because it’s evident that nothing is included by mistake– everything is a piece to the larger puzzle. From biblical references to allusions to past horror icons, Us is jam-packed with Easter eggs, promising a new revelation with each subsequent viewing.
Typically in a horror film, darkness and shadows are used to heighten the fear, and while cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (Glass, Split) definitely does this, Peele’s use of light is equally impactful. Long tracking shots down an all-white hallway and daytime scenes on the beach are just as suspenseful as those filmed in complete darkness. Similarly to Get Out, extreme close-ups on characters’ faces, particularly Nyong’o, serve as excellent vessels to portray the fear in every scene.
Beyond the frights on screen, like all great horror films, one of its most chilling components lie in its exceptional score, composed by Michael Abels. Everyone heard, and was equally terrified by the haunting rendition of “I Got 5 On It” featured in the film’s trailer, and it only gets spookier from there in the movie. It’s difficult to feel engrossed in the thrill of a film like this if the music doesn’t enhance the fear, but Abels ominous strings and plucks more than get the job done.
As the film nears its end, the story finally seems to fall into place, and it begins to feel a bit predictable. Not on Jordan Peele’s watch. Right when viewers are lured into a sense of comfort with how they think the story will unfold, Peele expertly flips the script once again, resulting in a truly shocking ending.
In a way, Peele’s own success could prove detrimental to his future. When you set the bar so high on your first try, topping it doesn’t come easy. Us is no Get Out, which may seem unfair, but nonetheless, they share a creator and the comparison is inevitable. At times, particularly in the third act, the ambition outweighs the explanation. Yes, part of the eeriness of horror films lie in the ambiguity and interpretation, but there must be a balance between how much is and isn’t explained.
Still, just two films into his career, Peele has already cemented himself as one of the best writer-directors of our time. Just as with Get Out, Us is a film that will require multiple viewings to understand the story in its entirety to catch every clue, and to fully appreciate the genius of Peele at work.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5