In just a few short years, Jordan Peele — already an acclaimed writer and comedian in his own right – has gone from notable horror enthusiast to one of the genre’s most important voices and historians. Get Out was the rare crossover film to win the hearts and minds of horror fans, cinephiles, and the general moviegoing public alike; as a result, expectations for Peele’s second film have been almost unbearably high. Let’s not bury the lede, then: Us comes closer to living up to an astronomical degree of hype than any person could reasonably expect.
Ever since she was a little girl, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) has been coping with the trauma of getting lost in a hall of mirrors on the Santa Cruz beachfront and encountering a half-remembered monster in the shadows. Now, married and with kids of her own, Adelaide reluctantly agrees to her husband Gabe’s (Winston Duke) proposition that the entire family vacation in Santa Cruz with his work friends. As Adelaide slowly succumbs to her half-remembered trauma, she begins to notice strange coincidences around her – a clock on the wall, a shape on the beach – that seem to be pointing to some dark thing on the horizon. And then it happens: Adelaide and her family are confronted by the Untethered, exact duplicates of them that are hellbent on taking over their lives.
Us draws on an incredible cast to play both the Wilson and their neighbors, but much of the movie boils down to the battle between Adelaide and her Untethered counterpart. Of all its strengths, this is by far the biggest: Us has at its center two incredible performances by Lupita Nyong’o. From the early scenes of creeping anxiety to the polarizing final conflict between human and duplicate – a literal dance of violence that contrasts the poise of one against the brutality of the other — Nyong’o creates two unique personas with endless depth. But she’s not alone: newcomer Shahadi Wright Joseph provides the film’s other standout performance, culminating in a sequence where Adelaide is forced to consider her daughter’s wounded double with something approximating tenderness. Us belongs to its female cast members; these performances are absolutely essential in making the Untethered more than just a Twilight Zone-esque gimmick.
These performances also smooth over some of the film’s challenging elements. In contrast to Get Out, which focused on everyday racial tensions before slowly descending into madness, Us is horror that hinges on a single fantastical idea. Peele has made a conscious choice to trade character for concept; with the exception of Adelaide – whose special connection with her double is explored through a series of escalating flashbacks – each family member is primarily defined in opposition to their duplicate, not as a fully realized individual. This creates an interesting tension within the film. On the one hand, the presence of less-defined characters can sometimes make Us feel more like a sketch than a finished product; then again, the idea that these families can only be understood in contrast to the most grotesque caricatures of themselves is one of the film’s most insidious messages.
One of — but not the only. The Untethered represent a staggering addition to the movie monster canon, a blend of racially coded images and themes that no one person could hope to unpack in a single viewing. Us is a film that will spawn a thousand undergraduate essays on cinema and representation; even smaller throwaway moments in the movie — such as a scene in which one of the doubles unexpectedly bursts into tears and then smiles, delighted at her ability to mimic the outward appearance of grief — could easily sustain their own in-depth analyses. In an era where most horror is psychological in nature and deliberate in execution, Us is a bit of a departure, a film that isn’t afraid to mash together some of its biggest ideas to create something ambitious and a bit fractured in nature. The various threads may not hold together quite as tightly as in Get Out, but a tighter story would never be worth the loss in ideas.
Oh, and have no fear that Peele’s foray into high-concept horror means that Us is more heady than scary. The home invasion elements in the film – when both families are confronted by their duplicates for the first time – show that Peele is capable of creating action beats on par with anyone working today. The conflict between the Wilsons and the not-Tylers is undoubtedly the finest ten minutes of Peele’s career as a director, moving effortlessly between sudden violence to macabre humor and back again. Few filmmakers are capable of finding the balance between humor and horror and maintaining it for more than just an opening act; as in his previous work, Peele knows exactly how to pepper his violence with shellshocked humor to improve the impact of both.
Maybe two films aren’t enough to add Peele to the pantheon of horror movie greats, but Us is proof that he will continue to make movies that blend genre, comedy, and thoughtful commentary for a long time to come. Peele has quickly become the horror genre’s equivalent of event cinema; it’s going to be fun watching general audiences discuss and digest this one for months to come.