With his remarkable feature film debut, Get Out, writer-producer-director Jordan Peele struck a nerve and captured the cultural zeitgeist. Many horror fans were in awe of the achievement and felt vindicated that a horror movie received such critical and commercial success. We wanted to see what he would do next—what message would he send: political, social, cultural, or a mix of all three? How would he deliver this message? What fucked up, masterfully directed story would he unravel?
Most of all, we wanted Peele to get crazy, so he got crazy.
(I’ll be blunt: if you plan on seeing Us anytime soon, avoid spoilers. This is a movie that needs to be experienced, not merely watched. I almost don’t want you to read this review until you’ve seen the film so you have the opportunity to experience its impact. As soon as you see it, come back here and read my thoughts.)
With Us, Peele once again proves that he has a gift for producing top-notch horror films. In much the same way that Get Out lures the viewer into a horrifically familiar world, Peele beckons his audience into the rich, dense nightmare of Us. You can tell he not only loves horror films but is also very interested in the genre’s ability to create an experience for the audience. Consequently, Us is one of the most memorable films I’ve experienced in a while. It’s a wildly ambitious, masterfully directed movie that entertains and scares, yet suffers from some poor writing in the last act. Nonetheless, Us affected me as only a few horror movies can.
Us is about the Wilson family: Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex), who all take a vacation to the family beach house. Adelaide is nervous about the trip, especially when visiting the Santa Cruz boardwalk to meet family friends Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), where she experienced a traumatic childhood incident. That same evening, the family finds themselves confronted by four mysterious intruders who turn out to be their frightening doppelgängers. They are The Tethered, and they want to murder Adelaide and her family. Adelaide must confront her childhood trauma and protect her family while outsmarting an enemy that thinks exactly like her.
The cast is stellar. Duke, Joseph, and Alex are great in their roles as Adelaide’s family members and their very creepy doppelgängers. Each one infuses their scenes with a balance of terror and humor (Duke is particularly funny as the loveable and kind of clueless dad). Moss and Heidecker are also great, making use of their limited time to deliver the movie’s most effective sequence.
But Lupita Nyong’o is the undisputed star of Us. She is brilliant. As Adelaide, Nyong’o veers between anxious mother and determined survivor. As doppelgänger Red, she embodies hoarse fury and an equally determined murderous intent. Nyong’o screams and snarls and weeps, in total command of the screen whether her reflection delivers a pained monologue or she’s confronting herself. Nyong’o is the movie, and it would not be so successful with a less talented, intentional actress. Hollywood awards unfairly ignore horror movies (see Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary), but hot damn, Nyong’o deserves official recognition from the establishment for her work in Us.
Peele takes full advantage of her skill to tell his story. Doppelgängers aren’t new, but Us feels fresh and original. The overall thrust of the narrative is spellbinding, working its way into your brain with symbolism that feels both familiar and strange. It burrows under your skin with uncomfortable questions—How do we confront our internal duality and darkness? What about the external battles with the people we share this country with, who suffer from plights we don’t acknowledge? Can we judge those trying to upend the hierarchy? What about those who seek to preserve the status quo? What about those that will do whatever it takes to rise above their circumstances? How do we feel about the fact that so much of our lives are dependent on the circumstances we were born into, circumstances that could change in the blink of an eye?
The doppelgängers are terrifying, rising up out of a parallel nightmare world to exact an enigmatic and horrifying plan. (See this article for the significance of Hands Across America, the largely performative, unsuccessful fundraiser referenced in Us.) There is no doubt in my mind that Us‘s compelling, frightening mythology will be dissected and debated for years to come. Even days afterward, there’s a good chance you will find yourself fixating on the film.
With a fearless lead actress and a provocative premise, Peele is free to flex his directing muscle. Here, Peele pays homage to his influences and synthesized them into his own extraordinary brand of directing. Since Get Out, Peele has only become a more confident director, exercising the same poise and precision with a voice as sharp as the scissors wielded by the doppelgängers. He manages the suspense with incredible, measured tension. He builds a world that feels real—until it doesn’t—full of Gen X childhood memories and surreal clues. His moments of humor into scenes functions as both comedic relief for the audience and a way to make his next devastating blow hurt all the more.
And then there is the technical skill he demonstrates. I’m not a film student, so I don’t possess a real grasp of what he’s accomplished here. But I was blown away by the way he framed his shots (especially as they captured reflections), composed his scenes, lit his actors, and fashioned a gorgeous cinematic language. I was also impressed by the way Peele pointed out his visual influences while serving his story, like his use of the split diopter (used by Brian DePalma and John Carpenter), as well as his numerous visual references to Kubrick’s The Shining. If only more horror movies could achieve the same type of beautiful, tenebristic, nightmare visuals.
(This is why comparing Peele to Hitchcock is annoying—1) if we have to make a comparison, Peele’s direction is more reminiscent of Kubrick’s and 2) at the end of the day, such comparisons are unfair to Peele’s vision and hard work.)
It’s precisely the quality of his direction, coupled with the fantastic cast and premise, that makes the problems in the script’s last act so disappointing. These issues with the writing undermined the careful viewer experience Peele managed so well until that point.
The thing about Us is that it makes sense from a bird’s eye view. If one pays attention to the major plot developments, which unfolds with sinister logic, the film strikes at shadowy archetypes. But drilling down into the nuts and bolts of the plot is more challenging.
Certain events broke the movie’s spell. An exposition dump in the third act gave me whiplash. On my way home from the movie, I replayed Us over and over in my head…and I began to see the holes. The film’s mythology, while thoughtful, leaves too many questions unanswered and doesn’t quite add up. There’s a fine line between leaving things unanswered and explaining the nightmare, and Peele tries to both with limited success. For example, these massive SPOILERS:
How did The Tethered survive down there for so long after the experiment was abandoned? Do they have running water? How do they have electricity? Do they eat only rabbits? Where do they get clothes? How does their environment work? If The Tethered are acting out the lives of their above-ground counterparts, do they have free will? What are the boundaries of this free will? Why didn’t The Tethered try to escape beforehand? Why was Red so special that she was the only one to escape, out of potentially millions of people? Where did The Tethered get their golden scissors, those fancy gloves, and their red jumpsuits? How could Jason control the movements of his Tethered but no one else could? Looking back, Adelaide seemed to know what was happening the whole time, but the last scene strongly implies that she only just remembered that she was the doppelgänger, which is confusing as hell. What are the rules here?
The script needed more time in the editing oven. Peele proved with Get Out that he’s a careful plotter, and it doesn’t seem like he had enough time with Us to iron out the wrinkles. But again, all credit to Peele for coming up with a stunning premise, and his direction saves the plot holes from being glaringly obvious.
So, while not as tightly managed as Get Out, Us sure as hell swings for the fences, and that alone is worth the price of admission. Peele knows about his audience expectation. He understands horror and what he can do with it. His storytelling ambition is inspiring, and while not a perfect movie, Us is a smashing achievement that sets a new example for horror movies.
I can’t wait to see what he does next.