'Us' Is Auteur-Led Horror at Its Best
Creepy, intense, and darkly funny, it's exactly what you want from writer-director Jordan Peele and more.
I saw many comments calling Jordan Peele the new “master of suspense” prior to the release of his sophomore feature Us and thought how high people’s expectations were getting and how some people were getting sceptical about the chances that Peele could avoid the sophomore slump after such incredible success with his debut feature Get Out. Critically lauded and commercially successful, Peele’s debut was one to envy, a striking allegorical narrative about race helmed with unforgettable imagery, intelligent satire and engaging performances Get Out brought a lot of pressure on Peele for his follow-up film and yet he’s managed to meet, if not surpass expectations with Us. Admittedly not as tight or neat as his first film, the ambition and scope of Us marks it as a very different experience to Get Out but the remarkable direction and engaging storytelling are still there.
Focusing on a black nuclear family heading on vacation only to be disturbed by the arrival of their doppelgangers on their driveway at night, Us is definitely in deeper horror territory here although Peele’s signature humour shines through some scenes with Winston Duke providing some welcome relief in tense sequences. Peele brings so much atmosphere to his beach town setting; extreme wide shots of sandy shores at night bring dread and sense of agoraphobia rather than awe and the luxury holiday homes immediately lose their sense of comfort upon the arrival of the “tethered.” It’s an incredibly visceral experience in the cinema with Michael Abels score heightening masterfully crafted scenes—his haunting remix of “I’ve got five on it” during the film’s climax will give you goosebumps in your chair.
Having the same actors play both their regular characters and their “others” makes you appreciate the showcase here for the leading actors, Lupita Nyong’o’s unhinged performances is something to be admired as she holds the narrative together as leads Adelaide and Red. Her expressive facial expression and brilliant vocal work show a talented performer at the top of the game and she really excels in two challenging roles as both are complex, tortured characters and Nyong’o and newcomer Madison Curry—portraying the younger version of each character-make every moment count, clearly enjoying the opportunity to have such different and rewarding roles in the same film. Of course the stinging satire remains as Peele comments on class and privilege throughout the film through symbolism with “Helping Hands across America” being referenced at the beginning of the film to underline its importance as the film reveals its allegorical meaning in its thoughtful yet still tantalising third act. I won’t spoil anything in particular but it’s clear that has a lot to say about the class system and privilege, Peele doesn’t lean too hard into metaphor but his referencing to Jeremiah 11:11 makes sense the more you understand what his characters and settings represent.
Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker’s are clear satirical representations of privileged people and their fun, knowingly lame dialogue in their scenes—especially when Heidecker’s character won’t move to check out the disturbance outside because he’s in his “comfies”—shows Peele’s humourous wit coming into play. Some of his meaning does turn into exposition towards the end though as Red has a monologue about her motivations that are already clear for the audience to see and she draws an image that’s been spelled out to the audience already. It’s a slight criticism though as the film builds to a climax between Adelaide and Red that is excellently filmed, performed and edited and there’s a third act reveal that provides the shock and excitement you expect from this genre and will debate with your friends whether the film still holds together after the credits have rolled. Overall, Us is a wonderful piece of horror, brilliantly shot with a game cast, a great premise and with thoughtful questions being raised by a rising auteur who I hope has continued success in his numerous upcoming projects.