As children, we’re often reminded that there are two sides to every story. No matter how malicious, repugnant, or cruel someone else seems, they too have a unique worldview informing their every thought and action. Such a traditional virtue of empathy is all but lost in the toxic political wasteland that is America’s current political situation. In a time when both sides of our country seem masochistically desperate to divide themselves along opposite ends of the political spectrum, the mere suggestion of listening to the other side runs the risk of being crucified. It’s fitting then, that Jordan Peele‘s follow-up to his wildly successful debut Get Out slyly addresses the broadly divided playing field that all Americans continue to find themselves trapped within today. Us, like Get Out, deftly blends its uncomfortable sociopolitical themes with generous doses of scares and laughs alike, yet does so with less self-consciousness and far more style. Although less efficient than its predecessor, Us is an incredibly entertaining and thoroughly thought-provoking experience with an unmistakable degree of confidence behind the camera.
Us opens with a tense prologue at the peak of the Ronald Reagan era. It’s 1986, and a young girl named Adelaide is on the boardwalk of Santa Cruz with her parents. After wandering off into a corny funhouse of mirrors, she encounters a frightening doppelgänger of herself. We leave the flashback before it concludes and return to the present, where a now grown Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is returning to Santa Cruz for a summer weekend with her delightfully dorky husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Immediately, something doesn’t feel right to Adelaide. She finds herself continually spotting strange coincidences everywhere, from a frisbee lining up perfectly with a spot on her beach towel to her alarm clock reading 11:11 just as she’s putting her son to bed. But before she can convince her husband to leave, the whole family finds themselves held hostage by an identical set of doppelgängers.
From there, Us takes the traditional home invasion premise and escalates it to near-apocalyptic delirium, reveling in equal measures blood-soaked horror and humor. The film is far more unsettling than it is outright scary, but either way one would be hard-pressed to call it tedious. Although Us’s script is undeniably less novel than Get Out’s, its smart application of style and its incredibly charismatic cast more than make up for any shortcomings. Employing the dread-induced pans, startling close-ups, and striking shot compositions of It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, the film is far more interesting on a purely photographic plane than its predecessor. On the cutting floor, Peele makes intelligent use of parallel editing, often to point out the literal opposite extremes represented by each character and their doppelgänger. Even the mostly serviceable horror score by Michael Abels substantially enhances the mood, and when all three elements- cinematography, editing, and score- come together in the film’s poetic finale, the effect is nothing short of dazzling.
For all its agreeably cinematic style, Us is most fundamentally elevated by its exceptional cast. Lupita Nyong’o is especially fantastic in both her roles. As Adelaide, she’s fierce and protective, fighting to defend her family at whatever cost. As her doppelgänger, she’s proper and awkward to an uncanny level of peculiarity. The rest of the family’s doppelgängers are just as unsettling- Winston Duke’s lovably naive dad persona is countered by a hulking, violent brute that speaks only in guttural grunts and wails. An honorable mention must be made to Tim Heidecker‘s equally dorky character and hilariously terrifying doppelgänger that cheerfully gesticulates like he’s telling a dad joke while he’s patiently advancing to murder.
Clocking in at only twelve minutes longer than Get Out, I wouldn’t exactly agree with those that characterize Us as bloated. It’s certainly denser and more ambitious, but its main problems- which to the film’s credit are rather slight- are more due to a reliance on clunky expository dialogue than an overstuffing of ideas. The pseudo-supernatural elements that comprise its explicit horror premise are indeed conveyed almost entirely through the stilted retelling of Adelaide’s double. Although the presentation is awkward and perhaps a tad stale, the underlying themes of class oppression, division, and guilt motivating the mythology are not. The best horror seeks to use its relatively absurd premises to confront real societal anxieties, and Us is no different. Confronting and analyzing the film’s themes in any sort of depth would require spoiling its most satisfying twist, but rest assured Jordan Peele has just as much to say today with Us as he did two years ago with Get Out.
Many have rightfully noted the countless homages Peele makes throughout Us to horror classics like Jaws and The Shining, but without a doubt its most strikingly poignant cinematic tribute is its most obscure. One of the film’s final shots appears to reference Ousmane Sembène‘s devastating 1966 Senegalese film Black Girl, brilliantly recontextualizing that film’s portrait of postcolonial guilt onto the psyche of American socioeconomic relations. While I can’t say Jordan Peele is one of my favorite American auteurs yet (he has only made two films after all), I can confidently say that he is on track to becoming one of the most important and influential creative voices in popular American cinema. He has thankfully overcome the infamous sophomore slump that has befell so many promising directors before him, delivering yet another thoroughly riveting and thought-provoking piece of socially-conscious entertainment. Though Us may not go down in history quite as significantly as Get Out, it’s a reassuring sign nonetheless that Jordan Peele has a promising career ahead of him, and I for one can’t wait to see what delightful nightmare he envisions next.