Us, Jordan Peele’s anticipated follow up to Get Out, conjures every kind of nightmare.
From a silhouetted set of invaders inching their way to the front door of a lakehouse, to the deranged notion of a splitting-image doppelganger stabbing away at their double with a pair of shiny, gold scissors, to the existential fear of a socioeconomic plague consuming a first-world nation’s struggling class, Us is relentless in, and Peele tickled by, the use of horror tropes to rattle the cage of expectation.
The legacies of Rod Serling and Wes Craven provide the slasher a backbone, but a deep well of mythology, humor, American perspective, and imagination puts the film and Peele himself in a singular category. Nothing in recent memory will make you scream like Us’ razor-sharp, ready-to-shock puzzle.
[Ed. note: mild spoilers — but nothing much deeper than what you’ve seen in the trailer — follow.]
At the 2019 SXSW premiere of the film, Peele described Us in terms of construction and design. To write the script, he culled from dreams and breaking headlines, meditative thoughts and horror-movie history. He landed on a story resembling a home-invasion thriller, with the Wilson family — Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke) Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) — battling an identical, bloodthirsty family. But as the pursuers creep out of the shadows, the world around them warps and expands into a paranormal psychodrama primed for post-viewing chatter. There are a hundred ways to interpret the details of Us, but immediately following the screening, Peele, treading carefully, provided a 30,000-foot view.
“This movie is about this country,” Peele said at a Q&A. “And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken with the fact that we are in a time where we fear the other: whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us and take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger and I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us.”
Us opens in 1986, with a young Adelaide absorbed by a Hands Across America commercial. Her parents pull her away from the TV for a night out at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and there’s immediate tension: mom and dad taking passive-aggressive swipes at one another; the pure chaos of amusement park ambiance; a storm brewing above the ocean; and even Adelaide’s carnival game prize — a Michael Jackson “Thriller” t-shirt — sends a shiver down the spine. The atmosphere carries Adelaide into a house of mirrors ... where she stands toe-to-toe with her double for the first time.
Peele picks up with Adelaide in the present day, now happily married with kids, and finds the low-key rhythm of loved ones that gave Get Out the freedom to be funny. As Gabe, Duke does a tremendous Jordan Peele impression, beaming with the overconfidence of a upper-middle-class worker bee with an arsenal of dad jokes. His daughter nags him for driving lessons. His son won’t stop saying “anus.” This is life, silly, simple, and joyful.
Then there’s Adelaide, who can spar with her lovable of husband and be warm and motherly when the kids need it most and drop the hammer on family debates so they can all get on with their lives. Except that night haunts her, and what happens next completely shatters her. Peele finds a new pair of bloodshot, tearing eyes to capture in close-up. This time the context is completely different.
Nyong’o is a striking screen presence who can tear into dramatic material; that’s not news — she has an Oscar to prove it. That she has the range to play both Adelaide, a victim energized by fight-or-flight into a vengeful warrior, and her counterpart, a shade with the muscle of Michael Myers, the gravelly voice of a suffocating Voldemort, and the agility of a J-horror onryō, is a revelation.
As the red-shirt “others” break their way into the Wilson’s home-away-from-home, Nyong’o clashes together scream queen and stalker personas — sometimes literally, in the case of her double smashing Adelaide’s head into a glass coffee table — to paint a kinetic portrait of trauma. (Only after the fact does the techncial marvel of it all sink in.) Laughs let the audience come up for air — early on, Gabe buys a lemon of a motorboat that becomes a constant source of Scream-like goofs — but Nyong’o’s journey is one of pure, inescapable terror.
Us is a bigger movie than Get Out, and the twisting road of the story gives Peele a chance to bounce from Brutalist camera work worthy of Kubrick to the compassionate darkness of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and even a bit of Amblin-esque wonder. Bright colors shrouded by shadow create a constant dream logic that stretches from the vistas of California’s umbrella-speckled beaches to a cramped closet where Jason plays with matches, lighting the room with a single flicker of flame. Every ounce of Us is a choice that speaks to the bigger picture, and Peele isn’t afraid of the grotesque; finally, a movie splatters blood across a pristine, white Alexa.
Peele constructed Us to spark conversation without sacrificing his instinct to be wildly entertaining. There are hilarious kills and barbarous acts of violence. There are deep societal reads on 21st-century life in the U.S. (wink) and also jokes about explaining the drug references in rap lyrics to kids. There are sequences in film that recall the most artful horror films of the 1970s — and there are sequences that directly shout out to C.H.U.D..
The writer-director does not possess a high- or low-brow barometer. As far as Us and Get Out are concerned, there’s only a mission to provoke, stir, wake, and mesmerize the audience by any and every means necessary. He succeeds by layering on mystery and pushing his ensemble to a physical and mental brink. At a time when most movies divest in intelligence to cater to (then lose out on) the largest audience imaginable, Peele instead prioritizes ideas to make a terrifying, enthralling horror movie for all of us.
Us hits theaters on March 22