In some respects, Us could be seen as arriving to a wave of expectations.
This is Jordan Peele’s second step into the world of horror film as a writer and director. His first was 2017’s Get Out, which was also his debut as a film director, having previously co-wrote a comedy movie in 2016.
Get Out was a very highly acclaimed horror-satire. The film was an impressive distilling of race relations between white liberals and black America, and the full package received rave reviews, Oscar success and huge profitability.
It would be easy to try and judge his follow-up Us against what became something of a behemoth. But while others may debate as to which of the two films is the superior production, the question has to be asked of whether Us, by itself, is any good. Happily, the answer is yes.
The film revolves around the Wilsons, a wealthy family going on holiday at a summer house near the Northern Californian town of Santa Cruz.
Mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is nervy about visiting the town’s boardwalk, which is where she suffered a traumatic experience as a child, as shown in the film’s pre-credits opening, and alluded to throughout.
Despite this, she is persuaded by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) to go with him and their two children Zora (Shahadi Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to meet their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) on the beach.
During the beach trip, Jason spots a man in a red jumpsuit with blood on his hands standing on the beach while going to the toilet. He survives that but leaves his mother unnerved when leaving a pencil drawn illustration on his bedside table.
However, things then take a more sinister turn, as 4 people in matching red jumpsuits turn up at the Wilsons house. It soon takes a further turn, however, when the home invaders are exact physical doppelgangers of the Wilsons, with Adelaide’s double Red as the de facto leader and only one capable of speech.
What follows is a very unnerving production that cycles through many of the horror genre’s tropes. The film gradually ramps up the atmosphere and events throughout the drama, introducing further layers of horror and unease.
Peele himself has said Us is intended as a more by-the-book horror film than Get Out, which was dabbling in a lot more movie genres besides its primary horror focus. On that score, it does well, being as much about the atmosphere that is preferred in classic horror with moments of more contemporary slasher gore.
The central performances help carry the film. All of the family do well both as originals and doppelgangers, but Nyong’o does an excellent job as the film’s lead.
The complex character arc is one that carries a lot of the drama both in her actions and her relationship with the world those actions creates. But she is very good in working with the way the character deals with the world around her. It also applies for her role as the lead duplicate Red, stuck with a raspy broken voice but able to apply all the conviction and emotion needed.
Evan Alex is also very impressive in the role of Jason, and equally as his more feral copy, with the role arguably the one tasked with doing much of the narrative heavy lifting after those around the central character.
Its also quite something late on in the film to see Moss’ copy, shorn of all restraint and almost gleefully manic in her attempts to gain the upper hand.
The film is also a beautifully shot, very cine-literate production, dressed in handsome, almost vintage-like imagery and loaded with references to horror and TV shows of the past that are very elegantly worked into it.
Where things get a little hazy is the film’s central thesis. There are elements in Us’ script that touch on classism, societal breakdown, extreme action to get attention, population control, xenophobic paranoia, the worship of false idols and the nature of dysfunction affecting contemporary America.
Some of it works, but it feels like the understandable focus on resolving the Wilson’s story obscures some of how this collection of narrative strands fit together into one cohesive whole.
Regardless, for the most part, Us continues a very solid run of work by Peele in his new line of work. Its a well constructed horror movie that is able to deliver a compelling atmosphere of fear and terror, building in layers in the construction of an entertaining production that largely succeeds on its own terms.
Its a satisfying watch, and makes for a very watchable contemporary horror.