Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Us (2019) is the sort of film that practically demands to be seen twice.
After the enormous success of Get Out (2017) Jordan Peele was suddenly omnipresent; producing films for Spike Lee, and anthology series’ for CBS and Amazon, as well as getting to work on new projects of his own. The man seems to be positively bursting with ideas, a notion that is totally exemplified by his new film. Us is a scary, surprisingly funny follow-up to Peele’s electric debut, with no less on its mind. It is a big, ambitious film, and likely to be far more divisive for viewers than his universally lauded debut. While Get Out was his coming out party, this sophomore effort sees Peele swinging for the fences, cementing him as a singular voice in horror cinema.
Opening titles explain that there are thousands of miles of tunnels underneath the U.S., many of which have “no known purpose at all.” The film begins in earnest in 1986 with a young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) celebrating a birthday at a Santa Cruz amusement park. After wandering away from her parents, she is drawn into a fun-house on the beach where she seemingly encounters her double. Cut to the present: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is all grown up and spending a weekend with her family at a beachside cottage. The rest of the family is made up of her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). There is a lived in chemistry to their family dynamics, anchored by an understated and often very funny performance by Duke.
A family trip to the Santa Cruz pier slowly begins to ratchet the tension implicit in Adelaide, culminating in her confiding her childhood trauma to her husband. The same night, a mysterious family appears in the Wilson’s driveway. The introduction of the doppelganger family is a masterclass in escalation as their appearance quickly turns from an oddity (punctuated by laughs from Gabe’s attempts to scare them off) to something violent and sinister. Though François will shake his fists at the sky at the notion that the film could be spoiled, this writer will say no more about the details of the plot. The marketing has sold the film as something of a twisted home-invasion thriller, and while it is initially as straightforward as it appears, Peele is also up to something far more aggressive and unique in both story and breadth.
While Peele gets a lot of (deserved) praise for his writing skills, he deserves equal praise for his work behind the camera. With Get Out, Peele demonstrated a shockingly competent degree of confidence and control (for a first-time filmmaker), which allows Us to feel less like a surprise than a great artist ushering you into a bigger, bolder, set of ideas. Us is a film fully at ease with terrifying imagery; if there is no single idea as visually arresting as the Sunken Place, Peele makes up for it with his total control of generating scares with well-deployed splatter, as well as some truly inspired needle drops (both The Beach Boys and NWA are put to brilliant use in the same scene). On the whole, Us is both a much darker film, but also a much funnier one. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Peele’s background, but he walks a fine line of making the audience laugh without deflating the tension or making light of the film’s larger goals, which are both lofty and bleak.
Though Peele is ostensibly the draw here, the film itself belongs to the dual performances of Lupita Nyong’o. While Duke does great work channeling the likes of Clark Griswold, and a pair of supporting performances from Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker make an impression in only a few scenes, Nyong’o is on a stage unto her own. As both Adelaide and her double, she is doing tremendous, subtle work, with both performances acting as a sort of complement to the other. Nyong’o is essentially asked to carry the weight of the film, and she rises to meet the material in every way. Though horror often gets left out of the awards conversation, she deserves to be remembered come Oscar season.
If you are the sort of person who likes to go into a film cold (especially if you are that sort) then Us is a film that may delight, confound, or both. Peele is not interested in playing to whatever your expectations are (there were more than a few people in the audience who seemed to be scratching their heads when the credits rolled) but subverting them. It is the sort of film audiences are going to be talking about for years; dissecting clues, arguing about how this, why that, and the wild interpretations about what it all means. Ultimately, it will take more than viewing to fully absorb, as Peele throws so many ideas at the screen, pulling back the scope more and more as the film goes on, all the way up to the last scene, each new reveal re-contextualizing the story. It is one hell of a magic trick, and one this writer very much looks forward to re-visiting.