Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature is unsettling, ambitious, daring, messy, and utterly engrossing.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
This review, despite all best efforts, contains allusions to SPOILERS.
Rather befitting its central conceit, Us is a movie of dualities and contradictions. Jordan Peele’s sophomore directorial effort, the second in his series of “social thrillers,” is an ambitious and surprisingly wide-reaching film, yet whose strongest pleasures lie primarily in its impeccable execution of late-70s slasher movie fundamentals. It’s a film whose central metaphors want to make giant thought-provoking statements on class anxiety and Othering in modern America yet work far more effectively as a personal character piece than any wider social message. It’s an instance of Peele’s reach exceeding his grasp yet such a thing feels rather like an intentional design choice than a misstep on his part as a filmmaker and storyteller. It’s simultaneously deliberately frustrating and proudly crowdpleasing. It’s more conventional and accessible than Get Out whilst also being opaquer and more challenging than that movie ever was.
This is also going to be the only invocation of Peele’s instant-classic mainstream bum-rushing you get in this entire review, by the way. Not just because comparing Get Out to 95% (at least) of films released this decade, let alone Peele’s own follow-up, is brutally unfair, but because Us really is an entirely different beast to his debut. It’s more conventional, for one, you can choose to ignore all of the film’s symbolism and thematic messaging since, even with a few major wham lines (and several of those turn out to be red herrings), Us plays it coyer as to what exactly that larger message is, so genre fans looking for a fun and effective slasher romp can simply bask in Peele’s virtuoso balancing of encroaching tension, nightmare logic, and well-timed bursts of comedy. But the uproarious popcorn fun times are chased down by something far more bitter and difficult, the final third predicated on a series of reveals that elucidate things enough to make things work on a metaphorical level and muddy audience sympathies in manners that do work with distance and reflection but whose execution comes off as inelegant in a way many audiences will mistake for M. Night Shyamalan-style pointlessness – this is to say that Bad-Take Explainer YouTube is going to be fuelled for months thanks to this movie, joy of joys.
Far more than Peele’s cited inspirations of Twilight Zone episodes and C.H.U.D. (the latter of which gets a prop cameo in-film), what Us most puts me in mind of, particularly in recent horror, is Alex Garland’s Annihilation. A film which operates so heavily in metaphor and suggestion, explaining the mechanics of what’s going on only just enough to make the central themes understandable with little interest in whether they practically make sense, that it can seem upon first viewing to be a total mess and it’s only on repeat goes that the picture becomes clearer. Yet, for all of Us’ thematic knots and the growing feeling in myself that this is one of those rare films where the rewatch is essential – I highly suspect that I’ll regret both the score and every single word of my filed review even a week from now – it does still work first time through as a surface-level popcorn horror which is not something Annihilation could lay claim to. To my admittedly limited reference pools when it comes to horror, Us stands alone in a class of one for the time being, not least in the difficulty of discussing the film without giving the game away.
I really liked it, for what it’s worth. This is not me running my mind in circles attempting to justify something I was mega-excited for turning out to be rubbish. Us is a damn great time at the cinema, griping hold of one’s attention from the opening frame and not letting go until Minnie Riperton’s revolutionary cries shepherd in the closing credits. Peele teams up with It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and the sublime results are evident from even the prologue where a young girl on her fifth birthday wanders away from her constantly-fighting and embittered parents on the Santa Cruz boardwalk and is drawn, almost by divine intimation, towards a janky yet menacing Hall of Mirrors attraction during a storm. The purposeful framing yet tentative pace of the camerawork, the underplayed wrongness of the details surrounding the scene, the complete embodying and communication of a child’s perspective, and finally the deliberate delaying of whatever horror the young girl witnesses; these two could make many a beautiful movie together should they choose to.
After that prologue, Peele and Us take their time before descending into the thrills, letting us spend real time with our protagonists before horror comes calling. That young girl grows up to be Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family – consisting of doting walking dad-joke Gabe (Winston Duke), aloof teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and fidgety easily-distracted son Jason (Evan Alex) – are on their way back up to the Santa Cruz area for a weekend away at their beach house. Theirs is a family dynamic which is broad but believable, particularly thanks to some excellent performances: Gabe can barely go ten seconds without cracking some impossibly lame quip in an effort to defuse any tension and has even bought a rustbucket boat he can’t properly operate but is weirdly proud of, Zora is hooked to her phone and planning on giving up her Track & Field pursuits due to teenage cynicism, and Jason spends his days irritating his elder sister and trying to master a busted magic trick. Adelaide, for her part, is often distant and lost, haunted by that past trauma she’s not shared with anyone and a growing suspicion that the ghost of what happened 26 years ago is about to reappear in some form.
Indeed, that reckoning soon arrives on the Wilson’s doorstep in the form of The Tethered, animalistic doppelgängers of each family member led, as the Wilson household itself is, by Red (Nyong’o) with the goal of murdering their counterparts and taking their place. As horror movie villains, The Tethered are brilliant creations with symbolically loaded costume designs – red jumpsuits and a right-handed glove deliberately invoking the ghost of Thriller-era Michael Jackson – and that very Michael Meyers aura of clearly being human yet somehow more-than in ways that, again, recall nightmare logic far more than the science-fiction of the eventual explanation. They also enable Lupita Nyong’o the opportunity to turn in her Toni Collette in Hereditary moment, a performance (or rather performances) so outstanding that it immediately vaults into the all-time pantheon of horror movie turns and is unlikely to be beaten by anyone else in any film this year. As Adelaide, she is in full Aliens Sigourney Weaver mode, the matriarch scrapping tooth and nail to hold her family together whilst grappling with the trauma of her past experiences. As Red, she chills the blood like few can moving with a spider-like grace and rasping out threats with a supremely unsettling calm; her first sequence, when The Tethered get into the house and have the Wilsons at their mercy, is unquestionably the film’s high point, I could feel myself sinking into my chair with every word in the hopes it could somehow put further distance between her and I.
The resultant cat-and-mouse games are thrilling and refreshingly old-school. Peele’s comedic background, and the resultant crossover in applicable skills with horror, is constantly cited when discussing his seemingly preternatural handling of tension which could seem trite if it weren’t so true. He really does handle set-ups and payoffs like an old pro, knowing just how long to drag out the build-up before igniting the fireworks and when said ignition should be goosed with a jolt or when it’s more effective to play out naturally. (Another indicator of Gioulakis’ It Follows experience comes from how often Us prioritises strong framing and background threats slowly coming into focus over limbs and objects jutting suddenly into frame.) He’s also clearly having a tonne of fun with the pair of home invasion twists that take up the bulk of the film’s middle third. Even if you were to strip the open jokes out of the script – which snobbier horror fans will insist ruin the film and stop it from being a “proper horror,” but Peele utilises them as well-deployed accents rather than mere relaxers of tension – there’s a playfulness and clear giddy joy in the execution that makes the relatively extended runtime (nearly two hours) fly by.
That surrendering to the pure thrill of virtuoso moviemaking is vital, too, because attempting to analyse Us thematically whilst running is where cracks start showing. On a personal level, one strictly focussed on Adelaide, the rest of the Wilsons and their Tethered, things largely check out. Peele is exploring PTSD, the aspects of ourselves we keep hidden from everyone including those we love, and feelings of imposter syndrome regarding one’s social standing, particularly how that can intersect with formerly impoverished Black families who have scraped and clawed their way up from the bottom. Much of that is accomplished and effective particularly with distance and reflection putting many character actions, like Gabe & Adelaide’s interactions with their affluent and contentious White counterparts the Tylers (Tim Heidecker and another outstanding Elisabeth Moss turn), into proper context, whilst a didactic third act info dump benefits from a dazzling intercut final fight and Nyong’o just going to town on the material.
But it’s when Peele expands those explorations into a wider scope that things start to become clunky. The second of those home invasion setpieces is a lot of fun but since it takes the focus away from the central relationship required to make the film’s final revelations truly sing, retrospectively it can’t help but feel like a distraction which detracts from the stuff that matters. Particularly since Peele really only gestures towards a wider picture without fully following through on it – which is to say, we don’t learn anything that the Wilsons don’t also know – and the metaphor he’s utilising for the Wilsons doesn’t quite transfer 1:1 to America as a collective society as I think he wants it to. Resultantly, it’s hard to tell whether the muddled and inarticulate larger points he’s trying to make about systemic societal inequality are deliberate (an admission that he doesn’t have the answers but just knows something is wrong) or unintentional (that he does but hasn’t articulated them well). It’s hard to tell even two days out from viewing and after much reflecting, ditto whether any of this (most especially the aforementioned clunky closing third) could have been solved by a few more passes at the script or if they were simply going to be unavoidable in a film with the ambition displayed here.
Like I said up top, Us is a movie of dualities. It’s precisely crafted whilst being quite the mess. Its base pleasures are immediate and immensely satisfying whilst its deeper messages and metaphorical ambitions require extensive reflection and can prove frustratingly elusive. It sort of sputters out in the final third yet that’s also where many of its most effective images are housed, Nyong’o puts on a masterclass of acting, and said sputter seems very much intentional such as the eventual underplayed grace note. Should Peele fall into the Shyamalan career path (the last time a genre wonderkid bum-rushed the mainstream to cries of “the next Spielberg” or “heir to Hitchcock”), there’s every chance Us could be his Unbreakable, except that’s not a very accurate comparison since Us, for all its frustrations and seeming opaqueness, is still a relentless crowdpleaser of a thing.
Here’s what I can say for certain: in spite of its frustrations and shortcomings, I enjoyed the heck out of Us. I adored Lupita Nyong’o schooling future generations of prospective actors on how the art is done. I never once stopped being enthralled by the movie even when it winds down in the last third. I have not been able to stop thinking about it in the days since and wish I had friends with whom I could talk in detail about it for hours at a time. I respect the hell out of Jordan Peele for refusing to play it safe and just doing Get Out again. And, finally, I am definitely going to regret every single word of this review before the month is out regardless of whether my feelings cool off or warm even further up.
Whatever you end up thinking of Us, make sure you see it. In an age of baseline competency, comfort food filmmaking and hot-taking disposability, an impeccably-made and deliberately challenging movie that demands long-term digestion (yet doesn’t skimp on immediate thrills) is a rarity and not an unwelcome one. I’m not forgetting it in a hurry, at any rate.