For months after the release of Get Out, audiences discussed the nuanced ways it discussed race in America. One of the first pieces I wrote for this site was about the film and how it challenged me as a critic, writer, and person. It created a culture moment and entered the public consciousness in a huge way. It also made Jordan Peele an Oscar-winning screenwriter, as well as one of the most sought after creative minds in Hollywood. While he rebooted The Twilight Zone, produced BlacKkKlansman, and even talked HBO into a series based on H.P. Lovecraft stories, we waited with baited breathe for the next movie from the director’s chair. When it turned out he would return to horror, some people questioned the move. How could he top Get Out?
With Us, he’s not trying to top his debut feature. Instead, he’s using the immense power he wields to continue horror’s recent resurgence in popular culture. Us traffics in metaphor, symbolism, and self-reflexive homage of horror from its opening shot. Yet Peele approaches Us in different ways than Get Out, using visuals and suspense to tell a more horrifying and entertaining tale. That’s not to say that Us is missing a satirical and biting critical angle. It delivers on that level as well. Yet the step forward that Us represents to Peele as a director and filmmaking confirms that he will be one of the masters of his generation.
Us opens in 1986 with a young girl Adelaide (Madison Curry) at the boardwalk with her parents (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II & Anna Diop). While they fight, Adelaide wanders off. After an incident occurs at the boardwalk, we flash forward to the present. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now traveling with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). On their vacation, they meet up with friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), Josh (Tim Heidecker) and their children (Cali & Noelle Sheldon). That night Adelaide and her family are attacked by their doppelgangers, known as the Tethered. Over the course of the night and the following morning, they begin a fight for survival.
Us relies on two distinct leaps that allow the rest of the feature to fall into place. The first is Nyong’o, who simply astounds in the dual roles of Adelaide and Red. The ways in which she changes her physicality and vocal performances are mind-bending. If you did not know it was the same actress, you would assume it is two different performers. You can equally buy her intensity and anger, as well as her love for her children. Like Toni Collette last year, it’s an Oscar-worthy performance from the actress in her first leading role.
Just as important to the success of Us was Peele developing as a visual storyteller. Get Out used visual language extremely well, but relied on tight writing to help it cross the finish line. Peele lets the writing taking a backseat, allowing for the actions of each character to speak volumes. In the second act, there’s an entire sequence using only music and visual that showcases this skill. Every bit of tension is built on screen or through the impressive auditory experience. The sound team gets to let creations wreak havoc on your senses, and the score from Michael Abels is stunning.
Mike Gioulakis takes the cinematography to another level. After shooting It Follows and Split, Gioulakis uses his lighting to place layers of meaning into the images. It also helps to hide characters and build suspense in the process. Peele allows Gioulakis to frame shots wonderfully, especially with the use of doorways, but he also pushes Gioulakis to new heights as a cinematographer. At least six to ten shots from Us should be considered some of the best images captured on film in 2019. Yet he’s so good, it will be hard to pull just one frame when you think of this movie.
The combo of Peele and Gioulakis also allows Us to craft iconic horror homages. The movie combines Hitchcockian suspense, Craven’s eye for iconic imagery, and Carpenter’s patience in interesting ways. The gold scissors carried by the Tethered, as well as their gloves, call back to Nightmare on Elm Street. Their outfits (red jumpsuits) and somewhat lackadaisical chasing recalls Michael Myers. As Nyong’o runs through an underground tunnel, as well as the inclusion of an overt twin homage, Kubrick’s The Shining comes to mind. Even references to C.H.U.D. and Michael Jackson‘s Thriller video find their way into the story. Once again, Peele brings about beautifully subtle and tasteful love letters to the films that shaped him.
The rest of the cast gets standout moments, with some really taking advantage of the opportunity. Duke gets to flex his comedic muscles as Gabe, playing up the dad humor to help diffuse tension throughout the film. Once again, Peele knows that you need peaks and valleys in a horror film to keep the audience on edge. Duke delivers as he adds goofy comic relief to the story. Joseph and Alex deliver two outstanding performances as well. Both are genuinely terrifying as the Tethered. They also work well as terrified children, trying their best to survive.
Moss and Heidecker get some fun standout moments as well. Peele lets Heidecker become a physical performer in really interesting ways. Moss also gets a showcase scene in the second act that reminds you she should get more horror roles in the future. Letting each be used in new and interesting ways helps upend expectations of the two performers.
Much of the discussion about the film will revolve around the narrative itself. With the layers of ideas that Peele puts forward, there are dozens of readings that will all be valid. At the same time, there are a lot of questions about the mechanics of the plot, and the meanings within. This may be divisive for some audiences, who may not want to weight some of the heavy themes Peele grapples with. For me, I like to roll with what a movie puts forward, as long as the internal logic flows. However, some will nitpick, and that can take away from your enjoyment of the film. For the vast majority, the movie will be entertaining enough to keep you engaged, regardless of the additional messages brought by Peele.
Us showcases Peele’s step forward as a director and confirms that Lupita Nyong’o is a generational star. Us has a lot to say about America and the individual. Ultimately what you take away from Us depends on the person, but that’s what makes it such an exciting film. While Get Out proved that Peele could become a big-time filmmaker, Us cements him as a director worthy of attention every time he makes a movie.