You may know the term ‘sophomore slump’. Simply, it refers to an instance where a second effort fails to live up to the first. When your debut film is a surprise cultural phenomenon that nets you worldwide acclaim and an Academy Award, your second effort is only more daunting. This is firmly the case with writer-director Jordan Peele’s second directorial effort—Us.
In 1986, young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) wanders off from her parents at a Santa Cruz amusement park and enters a hall of mirrors, only to encounter her doppelganger, scarring her in the process. In present day, Adelaide (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) along with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Nelson) and son Jason (Evan Alex) take a trip to their Santa Cruz beach house, reawakening Adelaide’s fear of her shadow self. On that night—decked out in blood red and brandishing gold scissors—her grown doppelganger returns along with the rest of the identical Wilson family.
I think it’s imperative to go into this film and not expect something majorly akin to Get Out. That is a film where no matter how you watch it, you’re going to receive the thematic message Peele is intending to bring onto the audience. It took general horror tropes like abduction and mind control, and used that to make a statement about how racism thrives, even in the most privileged of liberal households. Us doesn’t have the thematic concision as seen in Get Out and it’s unashamed in doing that. Peele clearly wants the themes of Us to be far more liquid, where the film’s messages and symbolism can be interpreted in multiple ways. If you simply want a doppelganger-driven horror film, it will deliver on that level too.
What Peele proved to do so well in Get Out, and similarly in Us, is happily take time to establish its character dynamics and personalities before throwing our character into labyrinthine madness. The mistake too many horror films make is focusing solely on scares without developing interesting characters and dynamics before craziness ensues. In Us, this family building time is well spent. The audience is invested in the Wilson family and their relationship, before they’re thrown into this terrifying scenario, and it helps pay off elements in the third act.
In one of the film’s more memorable moments, Gabe says “What are you people?” Adelaide’s doppelganger—Red—in her haunting husky tones says, “We’re Americans.” As much as the title may seem obvious, it clearly refers to the United States itself and the idyllic comfortable lifestyle the upper-class live, while the oppressed struggle to rise and have their say. In simpler terms, if Get Out was racism, Us is classism. While it delves into that theme, it’s also a film which states that everyone has a darker side they try to repress. Its thematic resonance will likely linger after first viewings.
While being mostly known for his comedy, Jordan Peele is incredibly cineliterate in terms of the horror genre, and clearly takes inspiration from classic ‘80s horror cinema all the way to more modern horror cinema (make sure to look at classic films in a cabinet for fantastic hints as for what’s to come). Prior to filming, he made Lupita Nyong’o watch a myriad of acclaimed horror films from across the decades including The Shining, The Babadook, It Follows, Funny Games, and The Sixth Sense, among others. The film’s opening credits, which features the camera slowly zooming out on a rabbit, summons Kubrick vibes; but its story evokes what could be described as a feature length episode of The Twilight Zone—which is fitting considering Peele is presenting the show’s upcoming reboot.
Peele is gifted at creating hypnotic imagery, with many shots being seared in my mind well after the film ended. Much like the best horror filmmakers, he knows when the camera should slowly linger to create lasting tension helping create a successful payoff. He collaborates with It Follows and Split cinematographer Mike Gioulakis who proves once again that he knows how to shoot compelling horror. There’s an all-time classic split diopter in the third act which absolutely floored me. Peele has stated his least favourite horror trope is having the action take place in scuzzy locations, and it’s crystal clear in Us that he loves subverting this trope. Whether it’s a cosy holiday house, a technologically decked out mansion or a glamourous beach, he can create tension in the most picturesque of locations.
Comparing it to 2018’s Hereditary—which contained a powerful lead performance from Toni Collette—Us is anchored by a tour de force turn from Lupita Nyong’o. She manages to present two distinct characters who are so engaging to watch on screen. You’ve got Adelaide—who is struck by childhood trauma which still lingers to this day––and Nyong’o depicts this sense of fear to perfection. On the other hand, you’ve got her doppelganger Red––who carries a huge psychological burden––with Nyong’o straining her voice, delivering a haunting rasp. While she has delivered good work in blockbuster fare like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Black Panther, this is the first film since her debut Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years A Slave which has truly delivered on her star potential.
Winston Duke is great as your prototype dorky dad, and Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex deliver very adequate child performances which never let the film down. Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are also fantastic as a privileged couple who are friends with the Wilson’s.
Peele reteams with composer Michael Abels who creates an incredibly memorable score, utilising harsh strings, creating an evocative leitmotif, and delivering an incredible recreation of Luniz’s I got 5 on it.
Us is a film where you have to go in somewhat suspending your disbelief. Peele throws a lot of heightened storytelling ideas at you—especially in the third act—so it’s important to just be on board with what Peele is trying to say in subtext more than what he’s doing on the surface. However, many won’t agree with how deliberately vague its themes are, but it’s a film which also works as a Twilight Zone-inspired horror film on its own. He’s a director who loves hints and details which will make this film stand out more on future viewings. But more importantly, he’s creating original horror which is ambitious and has something very interesting to say. Often the best horror movies are ones that linger on the brain. Us is certainly one of them.
Us is out in Perth cinemas now!