Updated: Feb 8, 2020
In 2017, comedian Jordan Peele stunned audiences with his first directorial effort, the smart, thought-provoking, funny, horror movie Get Out. It was an outstanding, racially charged spin on The Stepford Wives, which was nominated for four Oscars, winning for Best Original Screenplay. The question following such a strong debut usually is: Did he use up all his good ideas already? The answer in Peele’s case is a resounding no. He does not rest on his prior success. If anything, he takes even more chances. Us is a clever, surprising, allegorical horror movie that is creepy, funny, exciting and wholly original. He has made something that comments on American history as well as our current social climate, while also being very entertaining.
The story takes place during the vacation Adelaide and Gabe Wilson go on with their children, teenage Zora and young Jason. When they get to the lake house, Adelaide begins acting a little off, but Gabe brushes away her fears as nothing. Then, they are accosted in their home by four people who are their exact doubles. What comes next is bloody, amusing and fascinating.
Us (112 minutes, without the end credits) is packed with references and metaphors, though it can still be enjoyed at face value. You do not need to “get” what Peele is trying to say. In fact, this seems like the type of movie that will have many different theories about what everything means. There is a ton going on here, but I will not delve into or analyze his themes, so as to avoid spoilers and allow you to make up your own mind about what is really going on. Or you may just see it as a crazy thriller about a family terrorized by their murderous doppelgängers. It can be appreciated on multiple levels. Either way, it is a pretty unique experience.
At the surface level, it is horror with a complicated story, relatable characters, intelligent dialogue and unsettling antagonists. Peele uses lighting and shadows well, creating a consistent mood of unease. He never rushes anything, letting the mysteries deepen. It is paced fairly slowly for the genre, but he keeps things absorbing by making the most of his concept, which is plenty deep on its own. What would it be like if we were confronted by a mirror version of ourselves, motivated by only our worst qualities? Peele the writer is probably Peele the director’s best asset. He never devolves into clichés or lets the proceedings get overwhelmed by chaos. He stays true to his premise all the way to its conclusion.
A lot of credit for Us's success should also go to the actors playing the Wilson family and their doubles. Especially Lupita Nyong’o, who is absolutely incredible as both Adelaide and her double. As Adelaide, she is defined by the love she has for her family. As the double, she is driven by hatred. Her individual performances are intriguingly layered. Taken together, it is quite an achievement that deserves to get some awards talk at the end of the year.
Winston Duke brings most of the humor as the friendly, if naïve, Gabe. Shahadi Wright Joseph is a typical teenager as Zora, and also a frightening psychopath. Ten year-old Evan Alex is very impressive as Jason. He is asked to play complex emotions, which he does effectively. He is not just there to advance the plot as the token creepy kid. Along with everyone else, he is a fully developed character, in addition to being a pretty scary monster.
Us is what I like to refer to as “next level horror.” It does not exist merely to put gore on the screen. Each frame seems meticulously designed to further the story and deliver some kind of message. With Get Out, Jordan Peele showed he could have a career as a writer/director. Now he has shown he could have a great one. Us may not be as good as his first effort. I am unsure, though I really want to see it again. However, it is definitely more ambitious. This is the work of someone who knows precisely what he wants his movies to accomplish. The end result is as daring and compelling as anything in recent memory.
4¼ out of 5
Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson
Winston Duke as Gabe Wilson
Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora Wilson
Evan Alex as Jason Wilson
Elisabeth Moss as Kitty Tyler
Tim Heidecker as Josh Tyler
Madison Curry as Young Adelaide
Written and Directed by Jordan Peele