Jordan Peele got a massive breakthrough with his directing debut Get Out (2017), a horror-satire addressing race relations in a fresh and creative way. He won an Oscar for his script and critics called it a masterpiece. Above all, I found that film to be a very entertaining genre exercise that had something to say and did so cleverly. Perhaps its formula became more obvious in the last half-hour and the plot wasn’t air-tight.
The same can be said about his second film, Us. But this time I found so many ingenious ingredients that I was thrilled to an even greater degree.
Adelaide and Gabe Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke) are heading to a beach house in Santa Cruz where they will spend summer together with their kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Joseph Wright, Evan Alex). Adelaide was actually in Santa Cruz most of her childhood summers and had a very strange experience inside a funhouse on the beach that she’s never quite gotten over; she feels uneasy about coming back. Then one evening, four people (two adults and two children) appear outside the beach house. Wearing red overalls and holding hands, they give an eerie impression. When they break into the house, the Wilsons are horrified to learn that the intruders are their doppelgängers…
Amping up the horror
One general complaint that some people had against Get Out was that as a horror movie it wasn’t scary enough. I wouldn’t say that Peele is one hundred percent successful here, but he has definitely made a real attempt to amp up the horror. Inspired by many filmmakers (Michael Haneke came to my mind), Peele as a writer and director, together with his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, throws a barrage of creepy ideas and visuals at us, starting with young Adelaide’s funhouse visit where she meets her doppelgänger for the first time, continuing with the unease we all feel as the family goes to the beach, and then the sequence where the break-in takes place. It’s a crazy, exciting, darkly humorous ride from there.
You can really tell that Peele is bursting with a desire to portray the darkness within us and let us draw individual conclusions about that. But, as the driving force behind a new version of TV’s Twilight Zone, also create an alternate universe that we can’t really see until we get in direct contact with it. In interviews, the director wouldn’t deny the possibility that Get Out and Us are connected in some ways; there are similar ingredients. Not all of this works; the second half of the film tends to lose some of its grip as the Wilsons get closer to defeating all of their doppelgängers and also begin to grasp the extent of the crisis facing not only them but the entire world. There are contrived ideas and scenes could have been tightened in editing. Still, we are properly intrigued all the way, and the ending does offer a final twist. Perhaps an obvious one, but effective nonetheless.
Part of the reason why we’re so invested in the Wilsons is the cast; they’re all delightfully likable, and wicked, as the family and the doppelgängers. Nyong’o in particular stands out in a complex performance. I also loved Elisabeth Moss as a bored, sarcastic and usually drunk mother of teen girls.
Us may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes this genre a lot more interesting than all these formulaic movies about scary nuns and dolls. It’s impossible not to love a horror movie that also uses music as memorably as this film. The 1990s hiphop classic ”I Got 5 On It” by Luniz is first played for nostalgic laughs, then turns increasingly sinister. That’s brilliant.
Us 2019-U.S. 116 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis. Cast: Lupita Nyong’o (Adelaide Wilson/Red), Winston Duke (Gabriel Wilson/Abraham), Shahadi Wright Joseph (Zora Wilson/Umbrae), Evan Alex (Jason Wilson/Pluto), Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker.
Last word: “With each individual, we spoke in terms of emotion, but we also spoke a great deal in terms of physicality. Especially because Lupita’s Red character is the only one of the Tethered that speaks in the movie, besides some sounds here and there. So with Lupita – she just reminded me, early on, I described her physicality as Queen Cockroach. Cockroaches scare me because they’re still. The royalty has this erudite air that I wanted this character to have: she’s the shit, she’s the head of her family and so much more. She took ballet classes to find her physical footing, no pun intended, and she came with this beautifully crafted, perfect physicality.” (Peele, Slashfilm)