Us is the latest horror film from producer, writer, and director Jordan Peele, the same half of the comic phenomenon “Key and Peele” that wrote and directed 2017’s Get Out, which was not only one of the most original and subversive horror films in recent memory, but also went on to boast a variety of Academy Award nominations, taking home the win for Best Original Screenplay. In his sophomore follow-up, Peele opts to tell a story about you and me (us), and how we are our own worst enemy. The film begins with a family setting off to take a vacation at Santa Cruz beach, at first nice and relaxed, only to be visited by a family standing in their driveway in the middle of the night. The catch? This family looks exactly like them. If they hope to survive, they must outsmart their counterparts who move and think as they do, or put an end to the chase, once and for all. The film stars Lupita N’yongo, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex.
Jordan Peele has become something of an overnight revelation in blockbuster horror filmmaking. Before Get Out, most people (including myself) knew him only as one half of the Key & Peele duo that initially charged his success, but in February of 2017, all of that became a thing of the past. Get Out was not only one of the biggest box office successes of that year relative to budget, it also racked up a strong number of Oscar nominations, becoming the first horror flick since The Sixth Sense to be nominated for Best Picture of the Year. In fact, so great was the success of Get Out that a mere two years later, people are starting to ask others if they’ll go to see the new Jordan Peele movie. Most accomplished directors take two or three films to get to that point, sometimes more, but for Peele, one was enough. Given all that success, Us had a lot to live up to given both the prestige of that first film’s success and that of its writer/director. And relative to expectations, it more than delivered.
Us is a great horror flick, and although not as thematically rich as Get Out was (i.e. I wouldn’t be looking for a lot of Oscar nominations for this, although there are exceptions), Peele once again brings that air of quiet tension roaring back onto the silver screen in full force. One can truly tell that this is a director in command of his cast, crew, and audience to such a confident degree he might as well have written the book on bringing horror back into mainstream cinema. There’s something incredibly assured about how he chooses to frame certain segments, allowing the camera to simply move throughout a given space and trusting that what’s meant to be scary will be. Even during the times when the audience is not meant to be scared, the camera lingers on characters, moments, and Peele milks every frame for every drop its worth.
While I may not get a chance to discuss the film plot-wise (seriously, it is incredible just how well they kept the secrets of it in the marketing campaign), what I can tell you about it is that the way this mystery plays out is wildly entertaining, with each relative set piece offering more creative and clever solutions for either the survival or demise of each individual character. Following that thread, the characters in this film are some of most interesting to follow in horror. The family being hunted by their doppelgangers has a natural, organic chemistry between them that makes them entirely relatable, and it is due to this same chemistry that those doppelgangers remain compelling on a narrative level. It really is something to see two completely opposite sides of the same person at the same time, especially considering the actors in it are basically reacting only to what they think the evil versions of these characters might be like. A lot of the film, as well, has a sharp humor to it that only a writer as well-versed in comedy as Peele would be able to pull off. Not every joke in the film lands on its feet, but most do, and in a more mainstream horror movie like this one, landing most of those jokes could be considered somewhat of a minor miracle.
The true purpose of this film though, it would seem, is to showcase the best performance-based justification for why Lupita N’yongo is as big a star as she is since her Oscar-winning supporting role in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. She leads this film, practically carrying everyone who’s not Winston Duke on her shoulders, straight to the top of the horror-as entertainment category, and seeing the stark contrast in her performances as both herself and direct counterpart is truly a wonder to behold. The Academy tends to have a bias against most horror flicks (with a quick glance at last year’s Toni Collette snub for reference), but given that Peele has already broken through to them with his previous film, I wouldn’t be surprised to find N’yongo with her second nomination (although a win seems unlikely this early). All of the other performances are also great, with Winston Duke proving he’s no one-off Black Panther scene-stealer. In the shadow of Lupita N’yongo, it can be easy to forget just how much skill he also brings to his role, both in physicality and in his voice. Elisabeth Moss doesn’t have as big a role as either of them, but suffice it to say, she more than makes up for her lack of screen time. The true revelations though are Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the leading children of the main family. Both of them are exceptionally good here, and their careers are sure to take a drastic upturn once enough people have seen the performances they’re both capable of.
If there is a true flaw in this massively entertaining spectacle of horror, it would probably be the thematic weight of it all. See, Get Out was absolutely a mainstream Blumhouse horror movie that had an eerie tone and fun-to-unravel mystery at its center to begin with, but it was also a biting satire on mainstream progressivism and a social commentary on how all-too-often a lot of “pro-black”, liberal America likes to say they’re in favor of progressive things like the Obama administration or greater diversity in mostly white spaces, but they don’t actually do much to bring those things to fruition, preferring to use black people and (more specifically) the black experience as a means to their own ends. Essentially, it was Jordan Peele giving the middle finger to Hollywood and saying “all you do is use us to feel good about yourselves and the ‘I have black friends/fans/producers/racism-is-bad-let’s-all-be-friends’ card isn’t gonna cut it anymore” (*cough* Green Book *cough*). That’s a pretty bold move to make with your directorial debut, and the fact that not only did Peele pull it off, but the Academy rewarded him for doing so, is astounding. That’s what makes it a tad disappointing that while Us can be viewed from a variety of different perspectives (duality of man, maybe we’re the real monsters, we drop causes when we lose interest, etc.), the thematic core of it being less clear is also the thing that hurts it the most. It doesn’t seem to pick up or stick with any particular thing it’s trying to say, preferring to let the audience choose for themselves, and while that’s certainly a bold choice, I’m not sure it was the right one (then again, maybe others see it as the perfect choice, so who am I to say?). It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it does keep Us from soaring to the heights that Get Out did.
In the end, Us is another great success for Jordan Peele (especially given its $70+ million opening weekend), and a worthy follow-up to an astounding debut feature. It may not be as thematically rich or as bitingly satirical as his previous film, but Peele has planted his flag deep in the mainstream horror genre so confidently it’ll be impossible for him not to become a household name in the “greatest directors” conversation somewhere perhaps as soon as 10 years down the line. The writing is sharp, the performances are fantastic, what commentary and thematic weight there is is still better than most horror films will even attempt to put out there, and all the while, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. This film practically demands a second viewing, and I, for one, can’t wait to see it again.
I’m giving “Us” an 8.6/10
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.