Personal identity and performance is just one layer of Jordan Peele’s Us, his first effort as writer/director since 2017’s Get Out, an Oscar-winning film about American racial politics that cemented Peele, after just one feature, as an all-time great horror storyteller. Us had tremendous expectations to live up to, and live up to them it does. If Get Out was Peele’s horror introduction, Us is his meditation on the possibilities of the genre. It’s a strange, hilarious, fearsome beast of a movie that always keeps you five steps behind Peele’s next brilliant twist, questioning the film’s intentions until they are slowly, brutally relayed to you. There’s nothing quite like it. It’ll haunt not only your dreams, but your psyche.
To reveal too much about the plot would be a severe disservice to the yarn Peele is spinning. The basics: Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke play Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, a married couple and parents to Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The family go on a vacation to Adelaide’s childhood summer home, a location that triggers traumatic memories from her childhood. Once there, odd things begin to happen.
Coincidences, like a frisbee landing perfectly center on the circle of a polka dot beach blanket. And odd deaths, like that of a man Adelaide recognizes from her younger years, a man who stood on the boardwalk with a sign reading, “Jeremiah 11:11″—a Bible verse that reappears throughout the film. On the first night, before the family can retreat, another family shows up in their driveway. After a confrontation, they break and enter, and the Wilsons soon realize what they’re facing: the family are döppelganger versions of themselves, and they’ve arrived with a specific agenda.
I won’t say more than that, except that if you think you know where Us might head next, you’re almost undoubtedly wrong. Even the trailers merely poke at the film’s plot, which spins into something mesmerizing and wholly entertaining, and goes broader than you might imagine. It’s a story about family, imposter syndrome, fear of other, and America. (I realized after the world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival that the title Us is likely a play on “U.S.”) And it tells it all with an equal measure of scares and laughs, in that unique Jordan Peele way.
While Get Out, still undoubtedly a horror film, played things mostly straight until its third act genre explosion, Us is a jam-packed horror film with a capital H straight from the beginning. It’s clear Peele loves horror movies. It’s also clear that he has no intention of following a rubric. When I try to think of movies to compare the film to, I honestly can’t. That’s how ambitious and singular it is.
Of course, nothing about Us would work in the hands of actors who aren’t on Peele’s wavelength, and holy hell did he strike gold with this cast. Lupita Nyong’o is always fantastic, but here she gives one of the all-time great horror performances—two of them, actually. As Adelaide, she is both bright and haunted, a woman suffering what appears to be PTSD after a freakish childhood encounter. As Adelaide’s double, she speaks in grunts and whispers, and her wide-eyed glare chills to the bone. Like Toni Collette in Hereditary, it’s a shame that the film’s horror label might hurt her awards chances, because this is what Oscar-caliber performances should be.
Nyong’o’s Black Panther costar Winston Duke gives a solidly comedic turn as the patriarch of the family; his jokes don’t distract from the film’s horror, but merely enhance it. He makes you scream, then laugh, then quiver; it’s not as showy as Nyong’o’s turn, but he more than holds his own. Also fantastic are the kid actors, who also have to play two versions of themselves and do it brilliantly, as well as Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss as the Wilsons’ superficial family friends and vacationing neighbors. They get one of the film’s best sequences, a harrowing series of events that will forever change the way you hear the song “Good Vibrations.”
Music is a huge part of Us, from Michael Abels’ fantastic score to the use of Luniz’s “I Got Five On It,” which makes an appearance in the trailer and is put to even better use in the language of the film. Peele knows how to let music make a mood. There’s one other song use I won’t spoil that set the audience into uproarious laughter before the dread of what it represents truly sets in. That’s master musical storytelling, and Peele makes it look easy.
I had no idea what to expect going into Us and I left the SXSW world premiere without a real grasp on what the film was trying to say. But it stayed with me, revealing itself in layers, sneaking into the crevices of my mind and forcing me to question not only its message, but my own participation in what I’ve come to believe its condemning. That’s what great horror does: It provokes, it lingers, and it doesn’t let you off the hook. If Get Out marked the arrival of a new voice in horror, Us proves that Jordan Peele isn’t here to coast on what he’s already proved he can do. It’s a horror game-changer, a film with an identity all to itself – and a film that will make you question your own.
Images: Universal Pictures