Starring: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Winston Duke (Black Panther), Evan Alex (Mani), Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale), Tim Heidecker (Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!)
Writer/Director: Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Release Date: 22 March (US, UK)
Right after the release of Get Out, it became clear that not only did Jordan Peele have the potential to become one of the great horror cinema auteurs of our time, but also that whatever he did next was going to be under a serious amount of scrutiny. Having lofty expectations are great for building buzz, but they can also be a potentially massive set-up for failure. His sophomore effort Us faces those challenges with an emboldened confidence, delivering an experience that is firmly a different beast to Get Out but still clearly a product of Peele’s mindset. The final result is perhaps not as immediately fresh and fine-tuned as his debut, but it has its own visceral charm of it s own that will keep your mind turning long after you leave the cinema.
Doppelgangers, clones, evil twins; whatever you want to call them, they are hardly a new concept in the realm of horror, but Us for the most part takes the idea in unique directions. Whilst there are some light comedic and satirical elements, this is absolutely a horror film first and foremost, one filled with all of the bloody violence and unnerving imagery you’d expect; any moments of levity are soaked in darkness and primarily in place to humanize the characters. The set-up is fairly standard horror stuff, knowingly playing with the tropes of the genre with knowing skill and an eye for subversion, but it quickly becomes clear Peele has eyes for something bigger. What initially begins as something of a home invasion thriller soon winds its way into more experimental territory, opting away from the tighter focus and direct messaging of Get Out to instead deliver its concepts in a more interpretative manner. It’s hard to discuss without diving too deep into spoilers, but it’s definitely optimal to go into this one as blind as possible.
It’s an approach that has both its pros and cons. It certainly helps to differentiate the film from its spiritual predecessor, and its style and subtext are certainly going to ignite a lot of debates amongst cinephiles, but on the other hand it results in a lack of immediate impact. It’s clear from the abundance of concepts and motifs presented that Peele has something to say, but it never quite meshes together into something easily digestible, and it might have benefitted the plot as a whole if a few were dropped to allow others to gain focus. There’s nothing wrong with leaving a movie with questions unanswered, and Us wisely doesn’t bog itself down by delving into questions about the lore or the rules of its world, but by its conclusion it’s not really clear what questions it even expects you to ask. I can’t say much more without ruining it, so I’ll just finish up with this: I saw one of its big twists coming within the first act, and it wasn’t even subtle about it.
Even if its storytelling doesn’t ultimately leave you compelled, the lead performances of Us will certainly give you that skin-crawling feeling. The main cast are all tasked with playing wildly opposing dual roles, and all of them absolutely nail what could have easily fallen into camp territory in the wrong hands. Lupita Nyong’o has arguably never been better here, simultaneously playing both one of the most rich and nuanced leading ladies of horror in recent memory as Adelaide and one of the eeriest, most unnerving, and immediately iconic antagonists the genre has seen as Red. The performances are absolutely opposite sides of the same coin, but there are just enough similarities between them to create that unnerving sense of déjà vu, and Nyong’o doesn’t miss a beat at any step; she could have a bright future in horror if she wanted it, and she should easily be a shoe-in for another Oscar for her work here. Winston Duke is similarly strong as the conceited, dweebish Gabe and his brutish mirror Abraham, whilst Evan Alex and Sahadi Wright Joseph are young revelations as Jason/Pluto and Zora/Umbrae. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker have only brief roles, but they add some much-appreciated levity in that time, as well as an extra layer to the story’s grim proceedings.
On a technical level, Jordan Peele’s understanding of the language of horror has only grown sharper. Whilst the direction and style don’t exactly reinvent the conventions of the genre, Peele has absolutely mastered every trick in the playbook and uses them for maximum impact rather than as a crutch for cheap scares. The pacing of the editing is absolutely on point, whilst the cinematography manages to drench scenes, even those shot in bright sunlight, with a foreboding sense of dread; some of the film’s imagery will stick in my head for a long time. The designs of the doppelgangers are simple but effective and memorable, the score by Michael Abels is disquieting and strange in all of the right ways, and there are some excellent soundtrack choices utilised both for prime comedic and horrific effect.
Us is another refreshing and well-crafted Jordan Peele horror flick, but in swapping out Get Out’s clear motives for a more esoteric experience it lands on uneven territory. Peele has undeniably proven he is the new go-to man for horror, and Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Red will certainly go down in genre legend, but I can’t help but feel there is a more polished and viscerally satisfying version of this movie that could have been with a few little tweaks. Maybe this is one that’ll take a few more viewings and some distance to fully appreciate some years down the road, but for right now I can still heartily recommend you give it a chance. It’ll certainly give you something to think about if nothing else.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10