Writer/director Jordan Peele blew up faster probably than other creative force I’ve seen in the last decade. He went from 1/2 of a comedy duo on the hit sketch show Key & Peele to Academy Award-winning writer when his directorial debut Get Out hit theaters in 2017. Watching Get Out I didn’t really grasp what was the big deal about the film beyond it’s obvious real-world relevancy (See my “rewind review” of that film here). I didn’t feel the film lived up to the way it was described. So consider me shocked when I decided to see his sophomore effort Us yesterday and found myself…legitimately intrigued. And by intrigued I mean unlike Get Out, which felt like hand-holding storytelling, Us has you actually work for it and the result is a much deeper and disturbing film.
Immersion into a scenario is part of the game and Peele grasps that this time with gusto, tossing away the horror-comedy he did with Get Out and having Us as a straight-laced horror. As such the film right off-the-bat knows what it wants to be, establishing the backstory of Adelaide Wilson (Played by Lupita Nyong’o) who, as a child in 1986 experienced something bizarre while on vacation with her parents in Santa Cruz. We’re not allowed to ponder much as the story jumps to Adelaide in present time with her husband Gabriel “Gabe” Wilson (Played by Winston Duke) and her two children. The summer has begun and they are returning to Santa Cruz to vacation alongside other families. Then, one night, outside their home, the Wilsons discover a family holding hands in shadow. You know this part from the trailers. It’s revealed to be doppelgangers of their family, led by Adelaide’s double Red.
From there what happens can only be described as pure adrenaline and the strangest game of cat-and-mouse to ever exist. Throughout it all Peele is smart to keeping upping the stakes personally and narratively, only giving slivers and bits as the lead family of characters try to survive. There is no transparent social commentary this time around. The story evolves from a home invasion story to a larger-than-life commentary that effectively connects an array of themes ranging from social class to the changing priorities of society as a whole. The message may not be as clear as Get Out, and some might find that frustrating, but it’s hard to deny the way the film challenges audiences this time around. Unlike his previous effort, Peele seems determined to trust his audience which, in turn, demonstrates how much more comfortable he seems this time around as a director with his writing letting each character have more defining traits.
Duke brings both dorky Gabe and his animalistic double Abraham to life with minimal effort while child actors Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex show a surprising amount of complexity as Zora Wilson/Umbrae and Jason Wilson/Pluto, respectively. But the fact is, this movie is Lupita’s show through and through. As Adelaine she’s skittish, uncertain, but possessing a brewing anxiety that is forced to evolve into a survival instinct against her mischievous and vindictive double Red. It’s something already when an actor can carry a film as one character, but to do it as two is a testament to Lupita’s talents here.
This is a film where I could reveal much and it would spoil the film’s worth, but on a technical level I can praise the return of the excellent cinematography that I couldn’t help by praise from Get Out, although this time it’s the work of Mike Gioulakis who not only worked under M. Night for both Split and Glass (Which is somewhat appropriate), but also the last two films of director of David Robert Mitchell, namely It Follows and Under the Silver Lake. This slew of films all run in-line with the DNA of the narrative that Us presents and it comes in handy as he knows when to let the camera serve as a literal eye to a character or to the audience.
One final note is on the score, which is effective not just through the work of composer Michael Abels (Who also worked with Peele on Get Out), but the effective use of in-environment noise and eerie silence creates a extra layer of stress and worry. And because of this, even some pleasant humor manages to sneak in and become enhanced by contrasting with the terror involved. With this film, I start to see the filmmaker I was promised when Get Out was blown up. A compelling and richly layered survival film that proves itself to be more than gore. If this is the direction Peele plans to stay on…I’ll gladly welcome it.
- Performances (Particularly Lupita)
- More subdued themes might challenge and irritate audiences at times.
- There is a final twist…it might have felt forced but that’s up for opinion.