Ever since Get Out sent shockwaves around the world in 2017, Jordan Peele has been in high demand. Between a remake of horror classic Candyman and a Peele-ified revival of The Twilight Zone, it’s hard to imagine the comedian-turned-horror legend had the time to ensure his sophomore effort was worthy of the high expectations left behind by Get Out’s cultural influence. Now, said sophomore film Us is here to stand hand-in-hand with Get Out – and it almost surpasses expectations.
Nestled within breezy and bright Santa Cruz lies neon-lit carnival games, extravagant boats and the childhood trauma of one Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o). She’s already unsettled upon arriving at the beach — imagine her terror when the family is subjected to a home invasion at the hands of four familiar faces. “Who are you people?” asks Adelaide’s husband Gabe, (Winston Duke) one of the intruders, with breathless unease. Son Jason (Evan Alex) delivers a response that would be absurd in any other scenario with certainty: “it’s us.”
Acting is the lifeblood of Us. Every actor takes on a dual role, portraying an average person on vacation and their red jumpsuit-clad doppelgänger, known as the “Tethered,” bent on destroying it. With a sinister, permanent smile, Shahadi Joseph Wright’s unpredictable Tethered Umbrae, the counterpart to daughter Zora Wilson, is the eeriest of the bunch. In supporting roles as the rich alcoholic friends of the Wilsons, Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss’ performances deserved much more screen time.
But Lupita Nyong’o holds the film in her hands and proves herself worthy of the starring role. As Tethered Red, she’s eerie even when she’s just sitting and speaking: her words come in eerily drawn out croaks, as though she’s been victim to the Tethered’s preferred method of delicate golden scissors to the throat. As Adelaide, the motivation of fear peeking out behind her strength shines through in every scene.
Where Us falls flat is the writing — Peele’s underlying message is subtle but present, woven throughout the film in the tiniest of details. However, the overarching plot winds up lost in attempts for it to reflect the theme. As the final scene fades to credits, the point of the film is clear; motivations for characters, reasons for events and the rules of the Tethered, however, are not.
Though the atmosphere Peele creates is ominous, the lack of palpable tension amongst the characters can only be the fault of poor writing and direction. Stakes never feel high in Us; though every scene is incredibly well acted, the tone feels lost at times when the Wilsons sidestep the fact that they’re on the verge of being murdered by doppelgängers to slip out some jokes or revel in nonchalance. There were, at least, times when the comic relief worked — you wouldn’t hear a family argument over who has the highest kill count of the group outside of a Jordan Peele movie.
Plot holes and brief tone shifts can be forgiven for the main selling point of Us: the sheer uniqueness. Trends in film come and go, influences of others visible in every last one, but nothing else is quite like Us. Even the message Peele makes sure to hit viewers in the head with using multiple plot points is new ground for mainstream film. Kills are often unexpected and always thrilling. Not only are the villains larger than life and visually iconic (expect a lot of red jumpsuits and little to no eyebrows this Halloween) but the dynamics between them and the heroes throw a wrench in the audience’s perception of good and evil. Even the ominous earworm heard throughout the film, a creepy remix of hip hop classic “I Got 5 On It”, sounds like a horror theme to be remembered among the greats. Most importantly, the story tying it all together is immeasurably refreshing in the mix of haunted houses and possessions, feeling brand new to the genre.
Jordan Peele victimized himself with the success of Get Out. Whether Us lives up to the expectations set by the world is subjective, but a universal truth is that this will be remembered for years to come. Like Peele’s other work, it’s a thrilling house of mirrors to step into, reflecting the worst society has to offer right back at them.