For those who often gaze into the abyss, here’s a treat.
Jordan Peele’s second film as a director, after the triumphant Get Out became a lightning rod for hot takes and the poster child for ‘smart’ horror, arrives in cinemas disguised as a home invasion thriller with an eerie twist. But the beating heart of the film is a big, juicy Twilight Zone-style allegory which feels purpose built to launch a thousand think pieces about the decay of American society and the unique malaise of our time.
The Wilsons – Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), and their kids Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) arrive at their vacation house in Santa Cruz for an uneventful week. All seems normal: from Gabe’s painful dad jokes to the kids’ urgent need for Wi-Fi access. But after a visit to the beach dredges up Adelaide’s painful memories of a childhood vacation there, the family are besieged in their home by boiler-suited doppelgängers of themselves; rasping, howling beasts who look almost identical to them but move with inhuman speed (and carry sharp, nasty-looking scissors). When the Wilsons fight back, the stakes are slowly raised, as the action leaves the beach house and Peele’s story expands to fill a much larger canvas.
Without getting into spoiler territory, like Get Out, Us also pivots on notions of unwilling control. And like its predecessor, it also holds up a cracked mirror to the privilege of the average Americans: uncomfortably reminding us that the price of prosperity is, all too frequently, the exploitation of others. While Peele’s new film is also less ‘about’ race than Get Out was, the family’s precarious position as dark-skinned Americans is never far from the surface. Us feels tailor-made for our current situation; it’s thrilling to see a horror movie ambitiously tackling so many timely issues, so well, and also being an exceptionally well-crafted piece of genre entertainment.
Peele’s undoubtable love for horror and its conventions allow him to navigate viewer expectations with real confidence. Us boasts a surprisingly cliche-free story, and an original one in interesting ways. Another filmmaker might have wasted time in showing his characters learning how to take up arms against their doppelgängers, or building their bonds as a family. Not here. Adelaide, Gabe, Zora and Jason don’t delay when it comes to attacking the interlopers and protecting themselves: there’s no time for hesitation or mercy. How rare is it to see a smart and capable group of protagonists in a horror film? It’s a decision that makes sense for these characters, and allows the story to be told with a ruthless economy.
Peele’s eye as a director is further developed in Us, and the cutting of the film (working with editor Nicholas Monsour) is legitimately thrilling. Halfway through the film, I was struck with the realisation that we were watching an enormous cast of characters, some of whom look identical to one another, moving through a lot of claustrophobic spaces in the dark – and that we as audience members were not confused for a second. That’s not just talent, that’s a miracle. The talented ensemble (not least Nyong’o, who’s showing us exactly what a capable and imaginative actor she can be) also excel in performing as their own doubles, offering nuanced and physical performances that complement the ‘originals’ in surprising ways. It’s a film full of images that are creepy and funny at the same time, and the actors know exactly how to play each scene, particularly Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as the Wilsons’ awful friends.
Us is undoubtedly a film which rewards multiple watches, chiefly because Peele carefully doles out information which informs the unfolding chaos and only appears significant after the fact. I was certainly reluctant to offer my opinion after just one watch – but I’m confident that we have a new horror classic here. Some viewers may chafe at the film’s apparent need to be considered on both literal and metaphorical terms to make any ‘sense’ at all. But Us works hard to help you suspend your disbelief, and it’s a joyfully creepy, nasty and disorienting ride. Making sense is fine for some films, but Us wouldn’t be half as much fun if it did.