In many ways, American cinema is still reeling from the shock of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning debut ‘Get Out’. Not only was it the unexpected reveal of Peele as a significant filmmaker, but the manner in which it combined, with almost startling clarity, horror, comedy, social satire and political commentary. It brought a level of intelligence back to mainstream horror, shifted the focus from white characters to people of colour, and was still as wildly entertaining as it was radical. Consequently, his inevitable follow-up was always going to be highly anticipated. However, with his second film, ‘Us’, Jordan Peele hasn’t taken the easy road and stayed within his comfort zone. This new nightmare is something altogether more vicious.
Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o, ‘12 Years A Slave’), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke, ‘Black Panther’), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) arrive at their family beach house for a holiday. Yet something doesn’t feel right to Adelaide, and she can’t shake a pervading feeling of unease. And then, on their first night, they find a family standing in their driveway... a family who look exactly like them.
The first clues to unlock ‘Us’ come early on, in the unexpected scale of the opening titles of Michael Abels’ magnificent score. This isn’t as contained and clear a film as ‘Get Out’, but far bigger, far bolder, almost operatic in its tone and scale. This is horror reaching into the insane, and the results of that reach are consistently extraordinary, with Peele moving from the confidence of his first film towards full command of his craft and his voice. There’s an opulence to ‘Us’, perhaps even a level of indulgence, but never without an awareness of that indulgence and how it can be weaponised for maximum impact. It leans into the more fetid depths of the genre, with bold colours, nightmarish imagery and more unforgiving violence, still bolstered by Peele’s idiosyncratic comic style. What he understands about the function of comedy in horror that so few of his contemporaries do is that comedy is there to alleviate the tension so that the next blow is even harder, and the sharp moments of juxtaposition from one tone to the next make ‘Us’ much more of a thrill ride, throttling from one exquisitely executed set-piece to another.
It’s really startling just how in control of the film Peele is, establishing a musicality in the rhythms of both the film and everything within the frame that we so rarely see in studio horror films. ‘Us’ doesn’t want to scare you but unsettle you, burrow into your skin and lay its eggs, so its offspring can hatch and eat you from the inside while it watches, grinning manically with undiluted satisfaction. Its craft is impeccable, especially the sumptuous cinematography from Mike Gioulakis (‘It Follows’) and the furious editing from Nicholas Monsour. I also can’t emphasise enough how much I loved Abels’ score, where he elevates the particular tones and textures of his ‘Get Out’ score into a staggering black mass. There’s an unwieldy animalistic brutality to ‘Us’, but that unwieldiness only amplifies the thrilling ambition of it.
And that wild ambition extends to its thematic scope. The commentary that made ‘Get Out’ so special is still there, but this time Peele has something even more complex to say. With ‘Us’, he digs deep into our collective national guilt, where we have buried the unforgivable things we have done and continue to do as a species, the victims we knowingly manipulate and exploit and destroy, and spins it into a giddying nightmare. As the Wilsons’s face their doppelgängers and ask, "Who are you?", they’re met with the chilling reply "We’re Americans" - that they are us and we are them, even with our privilege and their sadism. ‘Us’ is a startling reckoning, where the horrors we commit and try to forget emerge for revenge, bloody and hungry and insane. It’s to Peele’s credit that he never makes this explicit, instead constructing a work full of puzzles and ambiguity, asking us to work with the film rather than expect it to deliver all the answers to us. The commentary in ‘Get Out’ was clear and simple, but the commentary in ‘Us’ is vast, ambitiously so, not just about how one race of people treat another, but how we all treat one another, regardless of race or religion or politics, how capable we all are of terrible things, how we try so desperately to hide that darker part of ourselves as individuals and as a society, and how that which we desperately try to hide can so easily find us and eat us alive.
‘Us’ is a startling reckoning, where the horrors we commit and try to forget emerge for revenge, bloody and hungry and insane.
‘Us’ continues to triumph is in its performances, especially with the jaw-dropping double performance from Lupita Nyong’o. The complexity and ferocity of her performance as both Adelaide and her doppelgänger is breathtaking to behold, allowing us to truly see what an extraordinary actor she is. There were moments I was genuinely left in awe by her performance, one as thunderous and iconic as Ellen Burstyn in ‘The Exorcist’, Essie Davis in ‘The Babadook’ or Toni Collette in ‘Hereditary’, a full-blooded powerhouse of psychological pyrotechnics and total physical command. Supporting her is a cast who never put a foot wrong, including yet another gloriously charismatic performance from Winston Duke, wonderfully astute and intelligent performances from Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, and playfully twisted work from Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. I also tried desperately to find the credit for the person responsible for the extraordinary choreography in all of the doppelgänger performances, but was unable to. Whoever they were, this film is so much indebted to their precise and twisted imagination.
If you’re intending to compare ‘Us’ with ‘Get Out’, then don’t waste your time. Head to the cinemas when you’ve quit entertaining such a bullshit notion, because ‘Us’ is not ‘Get Out’ and shouldn’t be expected to be so. Jordan Peele aims higher with his second feature, crafting a highly ambitious, unwieldy and shockingly bold horror classic that elevates his work into the operatic. It is that rarest of things in this genre - a genuine horror epic, a film as artistically and tonally bold as it is thematically vast. Peele has established himself as a master of the form, not because of how he sits against those that came before him, but because of how he expects so much more from the horror form than anyone of his position and influence working today for a major studio. ‘Us’ is a virtuosic achievement, breathtaking even with its flaws, crafted with a sharp and twisted scalpel into a Freudian nightmare around a staggering central performance. If it has anything in common with Peele’s first film, it’s that we’ll likewise be talking about it and debating over it for as long as film exists.