Since its very first incarnation the horror genre has thrived within subtext and metaphor. No genre quite has the power to take its entertainment and fear then twist in some pertinent discussions about larger themes. Just ask Jordan Peele. The comedian turned event filmmaker delivered his own take with 2017s Get Out. Although less a ‘jump scare’ horror rather a situational and thematic one, its takedown of racial politics was incisive, focused and just brilliant. However its immense cultural and audience success has left his sophomore endeavour in a rather difficult place. People hungry for the cutting commentary he delivered last time out are going to be reaching deep and hard to find it this time out. Of course Us does have oodles of deeper meanings but I’m sure (and I’ve already seen) articles positing that everything, I mean everything, about it has some higher purpose. The brilliance of what Peele has accomplished here is that he almost presumes we’d be like that. Almost gleefully he fires off imagery and narrative turns that are almost dizzyingly random, and whilst some will work tirelessly to decode it, parts of it are really just excuses to conjure something iconic. The best horror, the truly iconic horrors are so because they don’t try to be legendary. They simply want to shake their audiences. Peele is a master simply because he is willing to juxtapose himself, the metaphor can exist alongside flat out unexplained craziness. I’m saying this, dear watcher, as a warning that you do not need to analyse everything Us is doing, just let it soak over you with its utter utter madness.
To summarise Us is to ruin its secrets. The story twisting and contorting itself in ways few will expect, for that reason you should avoid as much as you can going in. Briefly though, Us concerns The Wilson family as they venture to their holiday home by the coast. Matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) seems troubled to be there though, despite her loving and bantering husband Gabe (Winston Duke) keeping things light. Her young children Zora and Jason are your typical pre and current teen kids; he is watchful and questioning, she is jacked into her phone 24/7. Peele immediately builds our affections for this unit, dialogue feeling natural and loving, yet there is an air of tension always surrounding them. A creepy encounter on the beach shakes Adelaide, but that is just the start of her troubles. Later that night Jason notices another family standing in their driveway, a family made up entirely of seemingly identical versions of themselves. There is where I must leave it though. Us morphs so much throughout its running time that it can be almost punishing to keep up with it. House invasion evolves into zombie movie before the canvas opens even wider to something akin to a Twilight Zone episode (no wonder Peele is anchoring a new TV version, he clearly loves it).
Often when a film, particularly a horror film, has lofty ideas directors forget to include the entertainment. No such problem here. In fact if you were to remove the need to analyse and detail the deeper themes you would still be left with confident ballsy fun. Peele keeps the pace constantly moving, the energy high and manages to balance a very tricky tone. Similar to Get Out he cuts through the (very) dark material with glib one liners, only occasionally picking the wrong times to do so. Even the freakiest moments are never far away from potentially slipping into guffaws, especially for those in the audience uncomfortable with what’s on screen. It certainly helps that Peele is a huge horror fan. Us is populated with numerous references and homages to his personal influences, whether that be from something as mainstream as Jaws (he uses the split diopter technique to chilling effect) to more obscure fare such as C.H.U.D. It’s not just filmic references either, there are nods to Corey Feldman, Michael Jackson and even Alice in Wonderland. Oftentimes referencing can veer into needless background filler, but here it helps you to centre within this eccentric universe he has created.
Universe building is key here, Peele introducing concepts and ideas at such an alarming rate that I wouldn’t blame you if you missed some of the subtext. One late film exposition dump is starkly shot if overwhelming, but that is exactly why I love it. The best film and TV are ones that inspire debate. An excuse to read critical analyses from far smarter minds than myself, pushing you to return to the well for another fix (I sense that Us will only grow with later viewings). Peele is introducing a lot here; meditations on class structure, economic divisions, the current political climate, family dynamics, the list goes on. Importantly though he just knows how to have fun with it all. Get Out was proof enough of his talents behind the lens and behind the pen, yet Us is an even grander step up. His eye for composing stark shots of beauty is at a premium here (one such moment actually left me verbally saying wow), with every decision made to accentuate his deeper intention. This is not mere pretension though, the film able to build proper scares using tension, the score (masterful insidious work by Michael Abels) and the frame in wonderful ways.
All of this would be for nought though if the cast weren’t on form. Luckily though Peele has cast perfectly. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph it can be tempting for people to argue that there is metaphorical reasoning for the film to focus on an all black family, yet Peele himself has said that this had no deeper meaning other than wanting to showcase stronger representation within the medium. And this family kills it. Winston Duke builds on his strong work in Black Panther as the wisecracking Gabe. The script careful to never paint him as the usual dissenting male figure, rather a husband willing to fight for his family and know when to follow the stronger voice. Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph give the two children real determination, vulnerable of course but never defined by that. Willing to stand up with their own agency. Of course being that there are doppelgangers at play here, everyone gets to play the darker version of themselves. All delivering performances of true terror, Shahadi in particular blessing the bad version of herself with palpable insidiousness (wait until you see the smile). But queen of them all is Lupita Nyong’o. As Adelaide she delivers a performance of genuine anguish, with something behind the eyes that shows us her immense internal strength to rise up when it matters, although it isn’t until the final moments when you realise just how impressive her performance has been. Playing the opposing version of herself (named as Red in the end credits) Nyong’o delves into something primeval. Both something inherently creepy and incredibly hypnotic. The fact there is something akin to sympathy available to her character is testament to the layers she finds within the role. If there is any grace Peele’s stature within the industry should lead her to some awards recognition.
Now Us does have its flaws; the tone can sometimes get away from him, there is a slight lull in the middle of the film and parts of its many revelations don’t always hold up to scrutiny. So keen is Peele in trying to deliver his many ideas that it can feel like overkill. Of course not all of it has to have meaning (as I mentioned previously sometimes metaphors can be reached for when they don’t exist) and he always uses the logic lapses to conjure strong imagery. I can certainly imagine a few will be put off by it all, especially when there is a very clear moment when the film evolves into something far larger. Because of its expanse it also lacks the tight focused intentions of his debut work. Yet I can not think of a film recently that has so stuck with me. Imagery and sequences have been replaying in my mind ever since I saw it. Us is just rich horror nectar, brazen in its confidence. Jordan Peele has escaped the sophomore slump and then some. As the tagline says “watch yourself” and see.
Verdict: Us is a film loaded with subtext, and layers upon layers of challenging thought provoking material. Yet it never lets that dictate itself into being anything less than funny, tense and thrilling entertainment.