It may not reach the subtextual highs of
Get Out, but Jordan Peele’s doppelganger-heavy followup is a beautifully rendered genre exercise.
It’s no understatement to say that Get Out felt revolutionary – a throwback to genre horror of the ’70s and ’80s from a director largely known for sketch comedy (Jordan Peele) that managed to infuse those thriller trappings with very real and modern racial concerns. A horror movie where the boogeyman was not just systemic racism, but the milquetoast, well-meaning racism of white liberals, Get Out justifiably broke box office records, snatched up Oscars, and established Peele as one of the most exciting new voices in horror. With his sophomore effort Us, comparisons to Get Out are inevitable, but arguably unfair. While Us traffics in the same sense of Hitchcockian suspense and showcases Peele’s impeccable command of horror craft, it’s a different beast altogether, one that snarls in a different register.
Like Get Out, the protagonist(s) are beleaguered people of color navigating a dark and dangerous world that smiles at them before trying to drive a stake in their heart; this time, it’s the Wilson family – mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright
In many ways, the family is everything the Wilsons aren’t – Red is assured and confident while Adelaide stumbles under the weight of trauma and depression; Abraham (Duke) is the strong silent type, while Duke is the dorky, talkative dad; Umbrae (Wright Joseph)’s running skills contrasts with Zora’s own ambivalence in her own track and field career, and so on. As the Wilsons start to turn the tables on their predators, these traits start to reverse themselves in interesting ways. “Show him one of your tricks,” Adelaide instructs Jason as he’s dragged away to ‘play’ with his doppelganger Pluto (Alex) – in its more crowd-pleasing moments, Us gives us plenty of opportunities to cheer for the Wilsons’ ingenuity.
Perhaps even more than
GetOut, Us feels like a film that warrants repeat viewings to mine all its intriguing thematic underpinnings.
The inherent drama of fighting your inner demons is really exciting, and Peele’s expertly crafted characters are ones you’d be happy to root for. But the home invasion thriller element seen in the trailers, and which forms the basis for the beginnings of the thriller, largely dissipate as the scope of the film’s crisis grows suspiciously wider. And yet, there’s an interesting discussion to be had there as well: the Tethered are more than just evil twins, but a frustrated underclass – one deprived of the comforts of the material,
But for all of Us‘ haunting implications about the violence we’re capable of in our darkest hours, Peele never forgets to keep his audience on the edge of their seat from moment to moment. At a certain point, the Wilsons become hilariously effective at taking down Tethered, offering plenty of opportunities for Peele’s signature dark humor to shine through (“I’ve got the highest kill count of anyone in the family,” Zora claims while calling dibs on the driver’s seat). Despite the deep existential horrors of the concept, Peele never forgets his influences – and, just like Gaspar Noe’s Climax earlier this year, offers a long-take look at an ’80s TV surrounded by VHS tapes of his cinematic inspirations, from Goonies to Nightmare on Elm Street to C.H.U.D. and more. At the center of it all is the film’s game cast, led by Nyong’o, who wrings out a devastating dual performance as violent and elegant as the balletic movements of Adelaide and Red’s climactic confrontation.
As an exercise in horror craft, it excels – cinematographer Mike Gioulakis brings the same sharp, painterly alacrity to this film that Tony Oliver did to Get Out, filling the frame with sharp, deep blacks that could be hiding anything in the darkness and playing with split diopters in deliciously anachronistic ways. Paired with Michael Abels‘ plinky, discordant musical score, Peele has firmly established a house style that’s grimy, gorgeous and spine-chilling at the same time. He’s a director cognizant of his influences (and more than willing to put them up on display in VHS sleeves and T-shirts), but more than capable of mixing those with his signature blend of humor, genre savviness, and social conscience.
Perhaps even more than