Us is a terrifying, ambitious second feature from Jordan Peele
After his directorial debut, social horror Get Out, earned over $200 million at the box office, entered a new phrase into the pop culture lexicon (‘The Sunken Place’), and won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, it’s fair to say Jordan Peele’s second feature faced high expectations. Thankfully, Peele proves that he’s no one-hit wonder with Us, a terrifying and hugely-ambitious new horror that suggests Peele might be the next big genre director.
Opening with an eerie, 1986-set prologue in which young Adelaide loses her parents at a funfair and gets lost inside a disturbing hall of mirrors, it’s instantly clear that Us is a very different beast from Get Out. Though Peele retains his social commentary and dark sense of humour, Us is more of a straightforward horror than his first feature, and the prologue establishes this with ominous lightning flashes, tense tracking shots, and the instantly-iconic moment young Adelaide discovers her exact double within the hall of mirrors. It’s weird, creepy, and sets you up for the dark thrills ahead.
Jumping ahead to the present day, we catch up with adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) as her family head to their Santa Cruz beach house for the summer. Peele excels at working with actors to create likeable, entertaining characters we immediately root for. Adelaide and fun-loving husband Gabe (Winston Duke) have terrific chemistry, while actors Evan Alex (as mask-wearing son Jason) and Shahadi Wright Joseph (as eye-rolling teen daughter Zora) are outstanding for such young talents. Though relatively light on incident, the first twenty minutes of Us offer hints of what’s to come: Adelaide is tense and restless, paranoid that her childhood doppelganger will return; Gabe dismisses her worries, more concerned with messing around on his boat; and Jason has a disturbing encounter of his own when he stumbles across a mysterious figure at the beach…
Having hinted at the terrors in store for the family, Peele kicks Us into gear when Jason spots a family stood on the driveway, barely illuminated in the darkness. Dressed in red boiler suits and brandishing scissors, the ‘family’ force their way into the beach house, revealing themselves to be doppelgangers of Adelaide and her family. There’s more than a hint of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games to the creepy home invasion, as Adelaide’s doppelganger ‘Red’ (Nyong’o, in a dual performance) monologues in a raw whisper about an underground world of ‘shadows’ tethered to their counterparts above the surface. The mythology behind Us may be somewhat illogical, but it hardly matters once the doppelgangers begin attacking Adelaide’s family in preparation for the ‘untethering’.
Though Peele’s writing expertly balances otherworldly-fears with big laughs, and his filmmaking expertly ratchets up the tension and violence (he captures the claustrophobia of the lake house superbly), Us truly comes alive through the multi-layered performances. Duke is such a fun presence as Gabe that it’s genuinely unpleasant when he appears as the shrieking, brutal ‘Abraham’, while supporting actors Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss have a whale of a time as obnoxious, middle-class family friends. However, the film mostly works as a showcase for the stunning talents of Nyong’o. Her performance as Adelaide is sympathetic and strong, while her inhuman portrayal of ‘Red’ may go down as one of the best horror ‘villains’ of the last decade. She’s scary, she’s charming, and she’s the absolute heart and soul of the film.
With such an ambitious idea does come flaws. Peele deserves plaudits for establishing an entirely new mythology and set of rules to work with, but his ideas can feel underdeveloped and messy. Plot holes and inconsistencies abound, and while these don’t sink the film, they distract from the otherwise-tight narrative and expansive, borderline-apocalyptic direction Us eventually takes. This is never more noticeable than in the intense third act, in which ‘Red’ reveals more of her backstory and the world of the ‘tethered’. While her performances are flawless, the storytelling is somewhat nonsensical and falls apart under the smallest amount of scrutiny. The filmmaking and violent, creative setpieces are more than enough to paper over the cracks, but another few drafts of the screenplay could have made Us flawless.
Following up one of the biggest directorial debuts in recent years can’t have been easy, but Jordan Peele comfortably clears the bar with his sophomore feature. Sharply written and handsomely directed, Us is a genuinely scary, original entry into the horror canon, taking a familiar home invasion story and turning it into something utterly unique. Powered by outstanding performances from the ensemble cast (especially Lupita Nyongo), Us may not be as taut or crowd-pleasing as Get Out, but it represents a massive leap in imagination and filmmaking from Jordan Peele.
By Harry J. Ford
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