Jordan Peele Delivers Another Instant Horror Classic
The monsters have our faces. They know our every move. It’s the type of premise that hearkens back to the days of classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I assure you that you’ve never seen anything like Us.
US ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Written by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Running time: 116 min.
Writer/director Jordan Peele puts to rest any concerns that he might falter in his sophomore attempt after lighting up the horror scene with Get Out in 2017. Every bit as scary, imaginative, and funny, Us elicits the same kind of audience responses as his debut racial political horror masterpiece. You’ll cheer, you’ll squirm. There will be no escape for your mind hours and days after you’ve left the theater.
Us opens with a title card about the thousands of miles of empty tunnels under the United States. No one knows their purpose. How ominous. If you’ve seen the trailer for Us, attempting to process what that could mean in a movie about doppelgängers leads to terrifying places in your mind even before a frame of film hits your eyes.
A cold open focused on a television set in 1986 provides a nostalgia trip back to ads for things like Hands Across America before the first scene takes us to Santa Cruz boardwalk at night that same year. A little girl named Adelaide watches her parents play carnival games. It’s obvious there’s some acrimony between her parents, her father having drank too much. Neglected in the dysfunction, the girl wanders off on her own, driven by some inexplicable curiosity.
She ends up in a seemingly-empty, dark funhouse down on the beach. The usual tension ramps up with distorted mirrors and reflective fakeouts, but the payoff is a tease. The moment Adelaide realizes a reflection of herself is not a reflection at all, we cut away.
Jump to the present. All grown up, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) has her own family now. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), eldest daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and youngest son Jason (Evan Alex) are your typical American family, teasing each other and mostly concerned with themselves rather than the whole of the family unit.
Wouldn’t you know it, they’re headed back to Santa Cruz beach, despite Adelaide’s fears that the mirror girl she saw as a child is still out there, threatening to catch up with her. Once they arrive, several coincidences dating back to that night in 1986 send Adelaide into a panic and ultimately an overprotective fervor for Jason. After some desperate pleas from Adelaide, Gabe agrees it’s time to pack up and go home. Then it happens. A family of doppelgängers dressed in all red and cast in shadows appears in their driveway, monolithic and menacing. They force their way into the Wilsons’ home, setting off a tooth and nail battle for superiority, for survival.
The leader of this home invasion is, in fact, Adelaide’s shadow self Red. To say anything else about the plot ventures into spoiler territory.
We already know Lupita Nyong’o is a skilled, Oscar-winning actress, but the performance she gives us here in the case of both characters is otherworldly. “Terrifying” doesn’t cover it. The principal cast of Us all developed two characters, both the Wilson family and their “tethered” family. All come through three-dimensionally and thoughtfully conceived, but Nyong’o’s Red is the stuff of horror icons, tragic, horrific, and unforgettable. Even as the determined horror protagonist Adelaide, Nyong’o acts with the kind of nuance that’s difficult in scenes asking mostly for wide-eyed fright or physical altercation.
The sociopolitical subtext slashes just as much as the scissors each of the film’s monsters wields. The others are clad in red. Their strength is in their unity and determination of purpose. They are us, yet not, and there’s no room for understanding between the two groups. We’re talking about cataclysmic schism. The film repeatedly references the biblical verse Jeremiah 11:11. Paraphrased, the sins of the forefathers are revisited, precipitating an inescapable disaster from god. The cries of agony will fall on deaf ears. As concerned with division as Get Out was, Us projects further out to the logical end. It’s chilling.
Peele shines because he has a reverence and understanding for the genre, but at the same time a desire to disrupt. He finds the beauty in a violent slash and the horror in a balletic dance. He does these things simultaneously, by the way.
At the Q&A following the South By Southwest world premiere of the film, someone asked Peele about the debate that inevitably springs up after every high-concept horror release like Hereditary or The Witch: “Is this horror or something else?”
Peele said that while he respects and loves horror, wanting to paint between the lines of the genre, he likes to push the boundaries. In the end, does categorization really matter? If it means we keep getting films like Us, I agree with him that it doesn’t.
Us hits theaters on March 22nd. You’ll want to see this one with a crowd. Take the whole family and the tethered family, too.