Jordan Peele’s Get Out was one of the most surprising and impossibly perfect directorial debuts of all time. With just one film, Peele went from one of the most iconic modern comedians of today to the new master of suspense, even to the point that he’ll be taking the mantle from Rod Serling in the upcoming The Twilight Zone. In two years, the anticipation for what Peele would do next – as the world saw a whole new side to Peele – has become massive. It’s the type of expectations that few filmmakers could live up to, let alone one just beginning a sharp right turn in his career.
With Get Out, Peele showed a clockwork symmetry. Every piece had its place, every choice had its payoff. Us, by comparison, is overtly about symmetry, and yet the threads don’t quite hold up as well. Yet Us isn’t a sophomore slump by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Peele is flexing an entirely different muscle, with a sloppy uncertainty, confusion and terror that inherently works for the story Peele is trying to tell here. Everything within Us has a question associated with it, and yet not all these questions are answered. If Get Out had a very clear, straightforward message, Us is the follow-up that will have audiences dissecting Peele’s every decision and intention here. If knowing the entire plan in Get Out made it horrific, the unknowable in Us is even more terrifying.
Peele expertly sets up his myriad ideas in his opening prologue, presenting everything from the U.S.’s abundance of underground tunnels to the Hands Across America event in a 1986-set intro. While celebrating her birthday at a Santa Cruz carnival, a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) goes off on her own and discovers kid that looks exactly like her. The event has shaken her for years, but when the grown Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) goes back to Santa Cruz with her family – her goofy husband Gabe (Winston Duke), cell phone addicted Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and usually masked Jason (Evan Alex) – she starts to fear what that past discovery means for her present.
Weird coincidences start to line up for Adelaide on this vacation. She sees people on the beach that she saw on the day she disappeared, the clock hitting 11:11 feels oddly prescient to her, and she admits that she doesn’t feel like herself to her husband. But Adelaide’s suspicions are confirmed when four people clad in red show up in the family’s yard, and things start to get really weird when she discovers that this group is seemingly an exact replica of her own family, albeit a fucked version of her family.
Whenever Us seems to give some semblance of normalcy, Peele pulls the rug out from under his audience. Every time Peele does this, his vision becomes grander and grander than ever originally expected, showing a much more massive scope than Get Out provided. Peele keeps zooming out on his wild ideas and keeping the truth close to his chest, without ever confusing or frustrating his audience. Instead, Peele finds a perfect blend of erratic terror and humor.
When Peele does provide answers in a fairly pat way, it does feel like a slight misstep. It’s almost as if one wishes Peele explained more, or just didn’t bother to explain anything at all and leave his story even more ambiguous. As with Get Out, there’s certainly a method to Peele’s every decision, and half the fun of watching Us multiple times will be finding the answer for one’s self. Is Peele presenting a comment on social or class structures, American’s avoidance of global warming, or something else entirely? Peele leaves it for us to unravel what his point is this time around.
One of Peele’s greatest gifts between his first two directorial efforts is an ability to put phenomenal performances into the horror genre. Us is stacked with an incredible ensemble, but the highlight is an unnerving Nyong’o, who is borderline unhinged as Adelaide and shocking and formidably in charge as Adelaide’s doppelganger. The way these lookalikes act, often communicating in guttural screams, clicks and groans is eery, but the way Adelaide’s mirror image controls her brood is creepy as hell. Despite how toweringly formidable Duke is, he plays Gabe with a charming sweetness that often undercuts the unsettling reality of the situation. Us’ biggest performance surprises however come from Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss as the Wilson’s family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. The Tyler’s almost become a control group for this situation, and watching Moss and especially Heidecker in their major sequence together shows a disconcerting nature to both performances that is completely unexpected.
Peele’s highly anticipated second film is further proof that he’s a master craftsman of horror unlike we’ve ever seen before. Peele does fit Us with so many ideas and metaphors that it might be a bit stuffed, but not cripplingly so. Watching Us, it’s hard not to compare Peele’s proficiency in his storytelling to what Michael Haneke or even Stanley Kubrick did with horror. Us might be a bit messier than Get Out, but Peele’s murky horror story shows the breadth and capabilities of Peele and cements his standing as one of the most exciting filmmakers around today.