Most filmmakers don’t make a masterpiece on their first try. But Jordan Peele isn’t most filmmakers and Get Out isn’t most films. Peele’s debut was perfect – a focused blast of pure satirical power told with wit and intellectual rigour, as well as delivering a terrific chiller narrative. He even managed to achieve the ultimate unicorn – an Oscar for a horror film. Peele could’ve done whatever we wanted for his ‘difficult second album’, and he chose Us.
We start in 1986, with a young girl experiencing something truly terrifying in a hall of mirrors when she wanders away from her parents. More than 30 years later, the girl is now mother-of-two Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and she has travelled with her family to a beach house in Santa Cruz – just miles from the scene of her childhood trauma. After a trip to the seaside brings all of her demons flooding back, the family is menaced and ultimately trapped in their home by a family of their doppelgängers, known as ‘The Tethered’.
Just as with Get Out, Peele’s second film works as both a genre thrill ride and a complex exploration of weighty themes. The allegory is less accessible than in his previous movie and is more than a little slippery, taking in ideas about persecuted underclasses, the gap between rich and poor and the duality present within all of us. Peele suggests we all have a darker, more primal side and further hints that the difference between the two might not be as easy to pinpoint as we’d like to think.
With so many ideas competing for attention, Us struggles for narrative coherence. Its first half is tightly composed and features some spine-chilling set pieces, but the second pinballs in so many different directions that it will certainly take multiple viewings to get a handle on what it all means. This will be a movie that launches a million YouTube explainers and Reddit threads. Only occasionally does it manage to pull itself back into truly special territory, most notably with a relentlessly gory sequence set to the unconventional playlist of Beach Boys track ‘Good Vibrations’ followed by NWA’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’. It’s a scene that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
The movie does shine, though, when it comes to the central performance of Lupita Nyong’o. Since she, like Peele, won an Oscar for her debut movie – Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years a Slave – Nyong’o has been largely squandered in thankless roles, often through the prism of motion capture technology. In Us, however, she is handed two terrific characters, both as badass mother Adelaide and her Tethered equivalent, Red. The latter speaks in a chilling, throaty rasp, which makes her sound as if she always has something heavy pressing against her windpipe. Nyong’o’s wide eyes are perfect vessels for terror, but she can also take on the persona of a defiant protector when called upon, steamrollering her rather oafish husband (Winston Duke) when the effluent begins to hit the fan.
Duke, incidentally, is somewhat under-served by Us. He is handed much of the comic relief elements of the script and, though he delivers the one-liners capably, the comedy here feels forced and unnatural in opposition to the funnier moments of Get Out. The neat inversion of expectations – Duke is physically imposing, but not much of a fighter – is not enough to make his character work. Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, too, are given little chance to make an impression and seem distinctly surplus to requirements, despite Moss’s excellent work in one particular scene with Nyong’o.
The issue, it seems, is with the fact that the characters in Us seem like mere vessels for the story. It’s very much a plot-driven movie moreso than one powered by characters, and that sets it apart from Get Out in ways that are not flattering. The terror last time around came from the fact these characters, no matter how heightened they ultimately became, were recognisable to audiences. Us leaves reality behind completely in order to delve further into its dense central conceit, sacrificing some emotional resonance in the process.
This is a film that teems with ideas and ambition. Allegory seeps from every pore of the story and there’s undeniable joy in untangling the myriad plot threads in the hours after the credits roll. The nagging sense, though, is that it’s more fun to dissect than it is to actually watch. This is, on the one hand, another boundary-pushing exercise of genre filmmaking from a clear maestro of horror. On the other, though, it seems Peele is not immune to the sophomore slump.
Dir: Jordan Peele
Scr: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Madison Curry, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop
Prd: Jordan Peele, Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick
DOP: Mike Gioulakis
Music: Michael Abels
Run time: 116 mins
Us is in UK cinemas on 22nd March.