Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Is as Thrilling as It Is Thought-Provoking

While not as streamlined as Get Out, Jordan Peele continues to provoke thought through the horror film lens with Us.

Jordan Peele
Universal Pictures
22 March 2019 (US & UK)

The brilliance of Jordan Peele‘s first horror film, Get Out, was that it harnessed the true power of the genre, using terrifying imagery to metaphorically unpack some of the darkest realities that creep into our subconscious in everyday life. The story saw white people possessing the bodies of black people, which is a frightening sight but is more chilling when you consider what the premise says about the appalling extent of cultural appropriation in America today.

With Us, Peele again turns a mirror on the state of American identity, this time with a more straightforward but endlessly fascinating metaphor. The Wilsons are a family vacationing near Santa Cruz, California, when another family — that looks exactly like them but wear matching red outfits, communicate mostly via primal grunts, and have a decidedly more savage disposition — begin terrorizing them in their lakeside vacation home for reasons unknown. In some ways, the story plays out in a much more conventional way than the story of Get Out, focusing more on classic horror tropes than social commentary. But in no way is Us a lesser work for Peele—it’s a powder keg of a film that’s as thrilling as it is thought-provoking.

The story opens with a flashback to 1984, with a young girl visiting the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with her parents. She wanders off and finds herself alone in a hall of mirrors when suddenly one of her reflections starts moving independently, and then the camera cuts, and the opening credits roll. This is the most spine-tingling moment in the film and sets the tone for what’s to come while raising myriad questions: Who is the other girl? Is there something supernatural going on? What happened after the camera cut? Peele (who again writes, directs, and produces) is already proving himself to be one of the savviest storytellers working in the horror genre today, and this knockout of an opener is a perfect showcase of his capabilities.

When the story jumps to the present day, we meet the Wilsons, a seemingly affluent family demonstrating quirks and familial dynamics that should be recognizable and relatable to most—the kids bicker, the dad is obsessed with sex, sports, and his new boat. The mom, however, is a different story, though I dare not reveal much more for fear of spoiling the twisty plot, which is absolutely delightful.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide, the Wilson matriarch, with the hulking Winston Duke playing her husband, Gabe. Both actors are emerging as bright talents in the industry, but Nyong’o is the standout, putting on a brilliant, brutal performance as both the unwavering Adelaide and her scissors-wielding doppelgänger. She’s a truly remarkable talent, and some of the almost otherworldly facial expressions she makes in key scenes will haunt your dreams.

The kids, Zora and Jason, are played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, respectfully, and they more than pull their weight. Alex is most compelling as Jason’s animal-like twin (the way he scampers and pounces is terrifying in the best way), but Joseph almost steals the show, using her eyes to convey terror almost as well as Nyong’o, which is a high compliment for a first-time screen actor. Duke is mostly utilized for comedy (a vital component of any good horror movie), and he’s phenomenal at it. The scene in which Gabe puffs up his chest to attempt to scare off the other family in the driveway is pure gold.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its mood, which straddles the line between the mundanity of modern living and the unnerving strangeness of the unknown. The juxtaposition of the family’s utterly normal lake house and the unspeakably icky state of the doppelgänger family’s “home” is as unnerving as it is metaphorically rich. The story’s tone, too, is a perfect balancing act, with Peele’s writing nimbly and naturally navigates between seriousness and humor throughout.

Us isn’t perfect, though, as the various pieces of lore and deeper symbolisms that emerge as the story unfolds sort of step on each other’s toes and make for a less focused and digestible experience than Get Out. Some of the best metaphors—like the doppelgängers referring to themselves simply as “Americans”, and the opening intertitles, which ominously inform us that there are underground tunnels all over the country whose purposes are unknown—are so rich and dense that it’s difficult to unpack them while also keeping in rhythm with the main plot. This is definitely a film you’ll want to rewatch over and over again, especially after the absolutely game-changing final moments.

This may not necessarily be to the film’s detriment, but as a horror flick, it’s actually quite light on big-time scares. There are a few explosive jumpscares to speak of, but most of the terror is delivered via the actors’ facial expressions and the gory details of the demented plot.

One of the best things Peele has done with Us is giving horror fans hope for a day when genre films are treated with the same respect as the prestige or period pieces we see dominate awards year after year. Get Out did this as well, though Us more proudly waves the horror genre flag while sacrificing none of the narrative depth of its predecessor.


RATING 8 / 10