It doesn’t take very long for Jordan Peele to reacclimatize you with the same dread he so expertly employed in his debut film Get Out. In the opening scene of his latest movie Us he drops us into a near-perfect horror short film. As her family enjoys a day at a fun fair, a little girl is slowly and ominously drawn away from her parents into the bowels of a haunted house where she finally encounters an unseen horror so great that her eyes reactively open in shock and her mouth opens to scream. Cue opening credits.
It is the sort of virtuoso move of a director fully in control of his craft. Buoyed by the critical acclaim he received in Get Out, Peele shrugs off any worries of a possible sophomore slump. Instead he flexes his muscles with Us, creating a more ambitious and narratively complex tale to terrify his viewers. The movie references great horror movies from the past, with homages to everything from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Don’t Look Now finding echoes in its runtime. The end result is a movie that at one level functions as a simple horror story that provides all the requisite scares and thrills the genre requires, but at another level is almost frustratingly opaque in its hidden meanings; all the more for you to argue endlessly with your friends while hopefully standing in line to see it again. My advice: just go along for the ride first, worry about the allegory later.
After the opening scene and a rabbit-filled credits sequence, the story picks up thirty years later where we find that the little girl has become Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), married to a Homer-esque Gabe (Winston Duke), and mother to two kids Zora (Shahidi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They have returned to the same beach town where Adelaide had her fearful encounter years before, this time for a family vacation. Unfortunately Adelaide almost immediately starts to see ominous signs all over the place, she knows she is being haunted but neither her family nor her husband’s vacuous white friends (played by a very game and very excellent Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) seem to pay her much heed. It should not take a genius to realize that they should, and soon Adelaide’s unspoken angst and fears becomes incarnate when four scissor-wielding doppelgängers of the Wilson clan show up at their doorstep with nefarious purposes.
It is at this point that I should probably cease talking about the story, except to say that from that point on Jordan Peele nefariously reveals why he is such a great horror director as he calibrates scares and tensions with just the right amount of humor to such a perfect degree as to approach alchemy. If my theatre-viewing experience is at all typical, you should expect plenty of screams, sharp intakes of breath, nervous groans, and astonished gasps throughout.
Peele’s task in telling this dense allegory is made infinitely easier because anchoring this movie is Lupita Nyong’o who has to pull double duty playing both Adelaide and her doppelgänger (called “Red” in the credits) in such a way that they are in essence the same person but with wildly different expressions. To say she pulls this off is an understatement. Her vocal work with Red, with its guttural and raspy tones, is otherworldly, while her physical performance reveals a level of terrifying precision that I had not previously seen from her, and consider it high praise that I know her portrayal of Red is going to haunt several of my dreams. Meanwhile her Adelaide displays a level of primal maternal courage that is equal parts admirable and psychotic. As shades of grey get introduced to their initial dichotomy we realize this is a less a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde situation and more a case of Adelaide looking at Red as through a glass darkly, and the fact she pulls this dual performance off proves what an exceptional talent she is. I realize that we are still only four months into the year, but I would be very surprised is someone betters her showing here.
In an age of jump-scare horror, Jordan Peele stands apart in that his brand of horror relies less on surprising you and more in raising your primal fears to an anxiety-inducing level and then keeping it there throughout. While he displayed this same skill in Get Out what is more impressive here is that he manages to pull his brand of horror of in a much more thematically complex and ambiguous narrative. Where Get Out was a tight but simple parable about race, Us expands outwards in more audacious and terrifying ways, weaving a labyrinthine plot that is filled chock-a-block with allegorical images of which multiple interpretations are possible (my current theory is that this is Jordan Peele’s exegesis on the hidden exploitation that makes American capitalism possible, but I am willing to hear other arguments). Some quarter have seen this as evidence that Peele overstuffs the movie, but I think it speaks to the power of Us that everything from race in America to the dual nature of our public and private selves finds some resonance in this narrative. The movie may lack the clarity of vision of Get Out, but personally that makes it more interesting.
But while Us does have something to say about a myriad of social issues, it is first and foremost a fantastically scary horror movie, aided in no small part by the fantastic score from Michael Abels. The movie reveals exactly why Jordan Peele has become one of the most exciting directors working today. He knows exactly how to pace a scene, showing a restraint that much more experienced directors have lacked. He keeps us on our toes mostly by anticipating our expectations and then pulling the rug from under us. And as befitting for his comedy background, he knows the power of a good punch line – here used to terrifying effect.
The year may still be relatively young, but I think it is safe to say that Us is the first real heavy hitter of the year. It confirms Jordan Peele’s place as one of the most exciting new directors working today, as well as cements Lupita Nyong’o as a phenomenally talented actress. But more importantly, as the title of this movie hints, the power of Us lies in the ways it displaces our own moral certainty, leaving us haunted long after the credits have rolled; a sure marker of a great horror film.
Runtime: 116 minutes
Directed by Jordan Peele
Written by Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon, Madison Curry