Any fears of a sophomore slide are quickly dispelled by we the audience in Us, Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his blockbuster cultural milestone Get Out from 2017. That Oscar nominated debut defied genre. Yes, it was sort of a horror flick but it brought in a racial subtext that got crowds talking. I believe Get Out gets better with every viewing and I suspect this will too.
Us, in some respects, is more of a traditional fright fest in comparison to the auteur’s first feature. There’s more jump scares, and more overall freak out moments. Yet there’s a whole lot of allegorical treatment on (yes) race, but also class and the concept of nature vs. nurture. Peele’s second pic furthers the notion that he’s an immensely talented filmmaker with lots to say. Us also leaves more up for interpretation than Get Out. It’s messier and that’s not really a criticism.
Lupita Nyong’o is Adelaide, the matriarch of the Wilson family. She’s married to the slightly goofy Gabe (Winston Duke) with two young children Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). We first meet Adelaide in flashback circa 1986 as a little girl accompanying her parents to the beach in Santa Cruz. She wanders into a funhouse where she encounters a hall of mirrors. Instead of only seeing her reflection, she encounters her scary doppelgänger. The event literally leaves her speechless for an extended period of time.
We flash forward to over three decades later with her brood and they’re vacationing at their lake house in the same area. She’s talking now and has tried her best to repress that childhood event. The family meets up with their wealthy, boozy, and snobby friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) at the same beach. Soon enough, Adelaide is unable to bury what happened in 1986.
It turns out that doppelgänger (named Red) is back and she brings along sadistic doubles of the whole family to terrorize them. Red (naturally also played by Nyong’o) speaks in a genuinely hair raising whisper. Referred to as The Tethered, the versions of Gabe and the two children are also creepy and with murder on their minds. This is the section of the film where the gory action kicks into overdrive.
Without spoiling the rest, Us goes about answering the questions of why characters have these bloodthirsty counterparts. It’s horror, it’s government conspiracy, it’s very funny at times. The use of music (from the terrific Mike Gioulakis score to inventive spins of classic hip hop hits “I Got 5 On It” and “F*** The Police”) is expertly placed.
Lupita Nyong’o, in her dual role, is terrific. Switching between a mom in protection mode of her rather normal family to a mom orchestrating that normal family’s demise, it’s quite a role to pull off and she certainly does. Actors in this genre rarely get awards attention and the Supporting Actress winner from 12 Years a Slave deserves it. Duke (and Moss and Heidecker) bring the comic relief.
In some respects, I look at Us as the Unbreakable for Peele if Get Out is his The Sixth Sense. Why the M. Night Shyamalan comparison? Sixth Sense was a massive hit that also nabbed a Best Picture nod. Unbreakable was his breathlessly awaited next movie. It was appreciated by some and confounded others by not being as easily accessible. Those same issues apply to Us. However, just as the reputation for Unbreakable grew with time, I suspect that will hold true for Peele’s second turn. I don’t know if I’d say Us quite matches the potency of Get Out, but I think it could on subsequent screenings. For my first viewing, it definitely provided a whole lot to appreciate as this director continues to show he’s a force behind the camera.
***1/2 (out of four)