Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop
Being the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay must bring with it a lot of pressure for future success, high expectations and, one would hope, more freedom to explore. Writer/director Jordan Peele, the 2018 winner of said Oscar for his commercial and critical hit Get Out, has apparently decided to stick to what he knows and create another horror-thriller brimming with social commentary, albeit with a little more focus on the horror this time around. It wouldn’t be far wrong to say there has been a lot of hype surrounding Us since it was announced as Peele’s next project, but is it worth the build-up, and, perhaps more crucially, is it a worthy successor to Get Out?
On the Santa Cruz beach in 1986, a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders off from her parents and finds herself in a hall or mirrors. When she emerges fifteen minutes later, she is unable to speak, clearly having witnessed something scarring. In the present day, the adult Adelaide (Nyong’o) has mostly recovered from her ordeal and now has a family of her own. As the family go on a vacation at their beach house in Santa Cruz, Adelaide’s husband Gabe (Duke) suggests they venture down to the beach. Adelaide is at first reluctant to go but then concedes to her family’s request, all the while feeling uneasy as she remembers what she saw as a child. Later that evening, the family are visited by another strange family who appear on their doorstep. Unbeknownst to them, this new family are about to unleash pure havoc, a havoc that is soon to have wider consequences for more than just Adelaide’s family.
Whereas Get Out had a lot to say about racism and everything that comes with it, Us draws more upon what it is to be American (‘Us’? ‘U.S.’?) and the dark side of each of us (not just Americans). There’s certainly a good amount of subtext within that’s presented through quite the surreal plot, something that’s not made particularly obvious in the trailer. The amount of surrealism used throughout at times feels rather Lynchian with a dash of Kubrick, though not quite to the degree that will leave you confused or Googling “Us – WTF?”. Peele isn’t here to trick you – he’s here to entertain you whilst making you think, encouraging you to go off and discuss what you’ve just seen (isn’t that the ultimate aim of all serious filmmakers?). At times the surrealism feels as though it’s drawn from very nightmareish origins, things we all experience through dark dreams that can leave us wide awake in the middle of the night, and it’s something that Peele is not afraid to put right in our faces.
If there’s something that Peele has proven he is an expert in after Get Out and Us, it’s his talent in getting the perfect balance between horror and comedy. When he wants you scared, you will be scared. When he wants you chuckling, damnit you will chuckle. But neither pulls away from the other, perhaps something only a guy seasoned in comedy who is blatantly a huge horror fan could pull off. One may argue that Us is not necessarily scary in a scream-out-loud way, but more in a creepy way. Yes, the jump scares are there for the more on-edge of moviegoers, however for those that are more hardened to such a thing there is fear a-plenty in Peele’s creeping anti-characters, known as ‘the Tethered’, not only in a physical sense but also mentally. The Tethered represent something primal in all of us, and seeing that which many of us repress or only know in our subconscious represented in a corporeal form is, in a word, terrifying. In this way, Peele is covering all his horror bases, from the gore and jump scares to the more intimate fears in the back of our minds.
Perhaps part of Peele’s success in his horror/comedy balance is thanks to his choice in casting such fantastic performers. Nyong’o has very much proven herself as quite the versatile actress, with roles ranging in diversity from Patsey in 12 Years a Slave to Maz Kanata in the newest Star Wars trilogy and Nakia in Black Panther. Not only does she lead this film magnificently, but her performance(s) is (are) staggering. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll immediately be able to appreciate the amount of work that will have gone into preparing her performance. She is at once endearing and yet terrifying. Duke, opposite Nyong’o as her onscreen husband Gabe, provides much of the comic relief but only when appropriate. Peele’s timing for Gabe’s deliverance of quick wit and quips is spot on and, as previously mentioned, does not deter from the horror. The way the comedy is carried out is realistic in the sense that we often react in similar ways when faced with something we don’t want to believe is true – often we’ll use humour to dismantle our fear lest that fear grow out of control. Gabe is a decent and loving father, however Nyong’o’s Adelaide is the true matriarch and head of the family. Qualities from both parental figures have been passed down to their children, with great performances too from Wright Joseph as daughter Zora and Alex as son Jason. They’re not the sort of children to hide away out of fear – just like their parents, they will fight for their family, and again their versatile performances prove their talents for two young performers.
While Us is all of the above and more, it doesn’t quite have the same effect as Get Out. This is often the case when a writer/director proffers something unique and fresh and then follows it up with a second project, however that’s not to say that Us doesn’t stand firmly on its own two feet. Much like 2018’s Hereditary, the trailer only gives away the tip of the proverbial iceberg, with something much more sinister and, in many ways, unexpected going on beneath the surface. It can’t be easy to have the weight of your first successful film on your shoulders whilst creating your second, but Peele seems to have put any cockiness or ideas of egotism aside and created another film that reflects what he would like to see onscreen, and as a result it’s something that everyone should see. Peele is fast becoming one of the modern masters of horror, and the anticipation for his follow up to Get Out will now roll over into higher anticipation for his next project following Us.