The pressure is on Jordan Peele, after his directorial debut, 2017’s Get Out, which earned him an Oscar for best original screenplay. That film used social commentary to orchestrate a horror comedy film that was equal parts clever and terrifying. It made its studio a ton of money and fast-tracked him to a career that most recently put him at the helm of the new reboot of The Twilight Zone. His latest film Us, starring Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, proves that his success isn’t a fluke. It’s an ambitious and wildly creative nightmare. It also might actually be better than Get Out.
Adelaide (Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children travel to their beach house in Santa Cruz for a relaxing weekend. They go to the boardwalk to visit their longtime friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tom Heidecker) and their children. However, Adelaide has been on edge from the very beginning. When she was a child, she experienced something at this boardwalk that traumatized her for life. That evening, the family is visited by a murderous family in ominous red jumpsuits – doppelgängers of themselves.
This film almost buckles under the pressure of having too many ideas and too much to say, which is indeed not the problem for most horror movies. Peele has stated that this movie is something of a Rorschach test, and the meaning can vary for any person, and there’s no wrong way to see it. To a viewer like me who can appreciate well-executed ambiguity, but needs a foundation to fall back on, this is less maddening than it should be. Because Us does something miraculous – it’s a horror film easily digestible at face value, but there’s subtext and metaphors and symbolism everywhere, and a hundred different ways to interpret what’s going on.
The film may not have worked nearly as well without Lupita Nyong’o’s fiercely stellar performance, as both the film’s lead and the doppelgänger version of her character. This is Nyong’o’s best performance to date, including the one that earned her an Oscar, and the entire movie rests on her expressive face and the way her character is handling the situations around her. It’s about the family dynamic and about the relationship between Adelaide and her husband (Winston Duke), but really, it’s about her. Considering that Nyong’o must play Jekyll as well as Hyde, and she does both to perfection, I would feel comfortable saying this will fall into the category of the best female horror performances of all time.
Every actor here, really, is playing more than one character, and everyone is exceptional. Winston Duke as Adelaide’s brutish but lovely and endearing husband is quite good, although the script lets him break the tension with humor sometimes when it isn’t needed. The actors playing their children, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are both giving surprisingly effective performances for child actors. However, the low-key MVP here is Elisabeth Moss, as the family’s drunken yuppie friend. To describe why would be a spoiler. You’ll know why when you see it.
This is only writer/director Jordan Peele’s second film, and there’s no sophomore slump here. Us smashes the proverbial sophomore slump with a hammer, douses the pieces with lighter fluid and sets them on fire. Cinematically, thematically and narratively, this is a far more dense and complex film than Get Out, although it feels wrong to compare them in the first place. This is a horror film that doesn’t rely on the jump scare and is all the more horrific for it. There is so much going on in every corner of the frame, so much involving shadows and textures and a memorable score. This is only the second score by Michael Abels, after Get Out, and like Peele, he has also stepped up his game in a significant way.
In the end, you must see Us, and see it soon, in a theater with a big crowd. See it so you can be part of the conversation because there will definitely be one. This is a movie that we’ll be decoding and dissecting and analyzing for years to come. It works as both biting and surreal allegory about socio-political issues and what it means to live in this country (was the title U.S. all along?) and as the best kind of horror film, mystifying and hypnotic in its terror. With only his second feature, Jordan Peele has accomplished what few of his peers have been able to. He’s crafted a haunting depiction of a woman at odds with herself that feels like a true original. I don’t even know what to compare it to. It’s a terrifying and atmospheric horror film that doesn’t need the jump scare. It’s weird, brutal, horrifying and demands multiple viewings.