By Max Copeman
When describing his filmmaking process, horror director Jordan Peele has frequently said that he aims to make his “favourite movies that have never been made.” Given that his first feature, Get Out, became something of a phenomenon lauded by critics, award shows and audiences alike, this appears to be a smart strategy. His sophomore effort, Us, may certainly represent a change in direction from his first film as a scarier movie less overtly about race, yet it is no less terrific.
As hinted by the title, Peele’s premise for terror takes aim at the American psyche, and this time the villainy comes from what they think they know best: themselves. The Wilsons are a conventional family on their way to their summer house in Santa Cruz, California. While dad Gabe (Winston Duke) is so intent on making it the perfect holiday for children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) that he even buys a boat, mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is less enthused. As outlined in an unsettling prologue, the coastal getaway was also the scene of her most traumatic childhood experience. Such ominousness then becomes reality when a bone-chilling family of Wilson doppelgängers appear, ready to terrorise them while donning red boiler suits and arming themselves with gold scissors.
Be it Biblical references to the apocalyptic Jeremiah 11:11 or even shadows on sandy beaches, Peele has many tools to once again infuse his work with allegorical depth certain to satisfy fans who love to theorise. Crucially, though, time is afforded for the family dynamic to be established, laying the foundation that precedes the fear. Supported by stellar breakout turns from kids Wright Joseph and Alex, Winston Duke brings bags of charisma as the loveable American dad, often providing an outlet for Peele to showcase his comedic roots and perfectly punctuate the film with genuine hilarity. So much so, one chuckles even as Gabe must approach the silhouetted imposters in his driveway, desperately exclaiming “if you wanna get crazy, we can get crazy” in a nervous and affectedly masculine tone. Unsurprisingly, the film does then get crazy.
Portraying the film’s two most prominent characters in Adelaide and her double, Red, Nyong’o somehow conjures a performance reminiscent of both Nicholson and Duvall’s work in The Shining. Such a masterclass is so beautifully balanced between the feared and fearer that for all its originality and sharpness, the film would not work without her.
Instead, events often play out in the idyllic and sunlit milieus of beaches or even affluent homes, as particularly evidenced by a riveting scene in the home of the Tylers, a white family who are friends of the Wilsons. This hands Elisabeth Moss a small role, yet doesn’t stop her from giving a barnstorming performance.
Elsewhere, Michael Abel provides a wonderfully disturbing score ranging from classically influenced horror strings to sourcing terror in everyday familiar songs. Particular cuts from hip hop’s I Got 5 on It by Luniz and NWA’s Fuck tha Police or even The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations are used ingeniously to provoke horror and humour.
Perhaps justifiably, knee-jerk comparisons have been made between Peele and the likes of Hitchcock and Spielberg. But while the writer-director-producer has shown that his first film was no fluke, he has also begun to develop his own unique mode of deranged, often comedic yet spectacularly sharp horror mixed with social commentary. Us sensationally develops this style further and serves to strengthen Peele’s reputation as one of cinema’s most exciting and in-form talents.
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