If, like me, you enjoyed Jordan Peele's Get Out but weren't swept up in the sea of hyperbolic praise it received (which included a shocking Best Picture Oscar nom), Us might be the film to prove that Get Out was just Peele warming up.
In almost every way, Us is a wilder, more out-there, more muscular suspense film than its more social-commentary-focused predecessor. Peele's second endeavor is less concerned with its concurrent real-life sociopolitics and more interested in raising the hair on the back of your neck simply because it's fun.
Us focuses on the Wilson family on their way to their summer vacation home—particularly Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), wife of Gabe (Winston Duke) and mother to Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, respectively). As we find out in an opening flashback to her childhood, Adelaide once got separated from her parents at a boardwalk in Santa Cruz, and stumbled across a perfect doppelganger inside a creepy house of mirrors—only this copycat was no glassy reflection; rather, this was seemingly a living, breathing person, smiling at Adelaide’s shocked and horrified face. The experience scarred her for life, but she's remained entirely quiet about it to her husband and children. That is, until their family vacation is interrupted by another family who shows up in their driveway and looks exactly like them. Adelaide immediately realizes that her childhood trauma has come back to haunt her, with interest.
The initial terror of Us is a doppelganger home invasion, and Peele certainly has no shortage of fun with that. All four of the main cast do an incredible job on both sides of the mirror, perfectly embodying the terrified and the terrifying. There's not an awkward or unconvincing performance in the lot, which is especially impressive with child actors. Nyong’o gives possibly the first Oscar-contender performance of the year—if Daniel Kaluuya got a nom for his solid but straightforward role in Get Out, I can't rationalize not putting up Nyong’o as well. Adelaide’s cries of desperation pleading with her captors are just as hair-raising as her doppelganger’s demonic smiles and gaspy voice. Winston Duke brings most of the levity to the film as lovable, dopey dad Gabe; he’s the type to face fear with undercutting wit as a clear defense mechanism.
The home invasion stuff is good horror fun, but where Us really stands out is the direction it takes from there. I won’t spoil, but the threat gets a lot more complicated and dire than the Wilsons thought, and the final act is where Peele decides to go all-out on the weird stuff; the finale more closely resembles the tone of last year’s Suspiria remake than Get Out. It doesn’t land with all the shocking power that Peele so clearly intended, maybe because seeds are planted for shit to hit the fan throughout the first two acts of the film. Additionally, for all the building intrigue, confusion, and mystery in the rising action, perhaps things don’t quite get weird enough. Granted, for a second-time director coming off a fairly bare-bones thriller debut, it makes sense (and this film’s tone and direction spell good things for the upcoming CBS All-Access Twilight Zone series, also helmed by Peele), but it was hard not to wish for a little more out-there depravity and darkness when all was laid bare.
On that note, Us is considerably more violent than its predecessor. Fire irons crush skulls, baseball bats break ankles, and cars catapult unwanted exterior passengers. It rarely delves into gratuitous visual detail, but the moments happen and hit fairly consistently with a wince or an, “Ooo, ouch.”
The way Peele chose to shoot the film couldn’t be more fitting for its zany, arthouse ambitions in the latter half. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is the perfect fit—his work on another indie-esque mystery horror flick, It Follows, had to be what got him the job. Peele and Gioulakis are careful and deliberate with how they arrange compositions to serve each moment in the story, hiding details here and there and deftly using high-contrast lighting and silhouette to their technical and artistic advantage (especially in a kick-ass final confrontation).
I previously noted that Us is less focused on the real-life political implication than Get Out, and that’s true. However, if you look, there's some pretty clear, relevant subtext about modern American identity that is probably more interesting to try and figure out yourself—quite possibly because it’s not always clear exactly what Peele wants to say, and perhaps that’s by design. I’m sure one could go on and on about the philosophical and political musings of class struggle and nationalism, but the fact of the matter is, Us is both more fun and more effective as suspense entertainment.
Really the only places where Us significantly falters are in its pacing leading into the third act and its humor-to-horror balance. I’d hesitate to call this a horror comedy, especially with the direction the finale takes, but the initial home-invasion stuff might have you set up to expect that. The laughs abound, mostly from Duke and the children, and the laughs are good—Gabe as the goofy guardian is one of my favorite movie characters of the year, probably second to Captain Marvel’s Talos, and potentially one of my favorite movie dads of all time. That being said, Peele occasionally struggles to drive home whether a moment is supposed to be spine-tingling or side-splitting. The performances of the Wilson doppelgangers are not the issue—I feel it necessary to note that because most of the crowd at my screening was yukking it up during the initial confrontation scene, which I found almost as disturbing as the creepy performances of the cast—but rather, the way the Wilsons respond to their predicament bounces rapidly between comedic and frightened and empathetic. It never really feels out of character for any of them, per se, but it does break up the tension during moments that should be building on one another toward a greater horror.
Ultimately, Us is a wonderful relief of proof that Get Out was no fluke on Peele’s part, and a showcase (hopefully) of what we can continue to expect from him. It walks a line between fun slasher, family dramedy, and macabre arthouse meta-thriller, though it never achieves full synthesis between the three (though it might be the smoothest execution of all three at once, at least that I’ve seen). It’s definitely more awards- and praise-worthy than Peele’s first outing, though I think this will once again be receiving somewhat exaggerated praise from critics and awards groups, aside from Nyong’o’s killer dual-performance, which deserves all of it. My worry is that general audiences won’t dig this one as much; it’s certainly not as “accessible” as the plain-and-simple thrills and hot-topic politicism of Get Out. Us is a more refined, subtle work, but also way more willing to get strange. And any time a movie gets strange, it’s a gamble whether or not audiences will bite and continue to chew. But this one is definitely worth being open to try.
My recommendation would be don't watch the trailer, but here it is, if you're determined: