Just how do you follow up a film like Get Out? It’s one of those films almost universally adored, the rare horror movie to go on and rack up not only Oscar nominations but even a win in the screenplay department. Its reputation remains untarnished. For a debut, it’s staggering work, but that left writer-director Jordan Peele in a pretty nasty situation for his sophomore effort. How do you maintain both audience and critical satisfaction while also proving you aren’t just a one trick pony?
The answer might look a little something like Us. Peele’s second feature is of stark contrast to his first while still retaining many of the elements that make his films (it’s exciting to be able to pluralise that) so appealing. He’s maintained the razer sharp balance between horror and humour, he’s delivered on his promise of serving up entertaining stories concerning themselves with societal ideas and issues. Us feels very much like a Jordan Peele film, and the fact that his brand feels both identifiable and wholly singular after just two features is a testament to the strength of his filmmaking voice.
Where Us varies from Get Out, though, is mostly in terms of scale, as well as subject matter beneath the surface – and here I mean that literally. A fiercely revolutionary Lupita Nyong’o takes leading honours as Adelaide, who ventures with her family to the seaside for a holiday getaway. She’s been traumatised by an event from her childhood, which we see open the film. As a young girl, she visited the boardwalk she now returns to with her family, and when separated from them encounters a doppelganger of herself in a mirror maze. The moment – a brilliantly haunting, effectively paced opening sequence – scars her as a child, and returning to the same location now is difficult for her.
After a brief escapade to the beach, which involves Adelaide’s son Jason wandering off for a while and scaring the life out of his mother, the family return home. Twice, in fact, for before heads can hit pillows, the home is invaded by a quartet of doppelgangers who mirror Adelaide, her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children. Going any further into the plot than this would be a disservice to the film, which remains thrillingly wild right through to the end. Even if you can predict the end, which many may find themselves able to do, the journey there is in no way impacted. Peele is a master of suspense and a wizard behind a script. What he’s crafted here is a horror movie unlike any other.
Talking about how Peele’s film differs from others that share its genre is taxing in a spoiler-free review, but Us operates on a scale bigger and more ambitious than anything horror has seen for quite some time now. Events unfold at a rapid-fire pace, but Peele opts not to let his film fall into conventional home invasion formula. While many films of this narrative craft various set pieces and space them out to steadily increase tension, Us dedicates its entire middle act to one elongated sequence. It begins with the home invasion, separates its characters, reunites them, relocates them, then does the whole thing again. Thanks to its fearless performances, a killer soundtrack and Peele’s bravura use of the camera, it flows like a blood-soaked river.
Perhaps the biggest reason Us structures itself differently to other home invasion thrillers is because Peele is intentionally toying with expectation here. Get Out is essentially the inverse of a home invasion narrative, bringing the protagonist to a new environment only to find out the monsters were the ones who brought him there in the first place. With Us, Peele tricks us. He uses his premise and his initially familiar character types to fool us into thinking that, this time, he’s doing home invasion properly. We couldn’t be more wrong. What unfurls doesn’t just break genre expectations, it throws them from the window and shatters them into a million pieces. Us dares to be more than the average home invasion story, beginning very much as one before it, once again, turns our understanding of it upside down and runs off as something we could never have seen coming.
Most of this comes in the film’s final act, a nightmarish close to the film that takes us underground and punctuates every thematic beat Peele has been simmering thus far. While Get Out took a sharp swing at racism – nailing the blow, too – Us is more wider reaching, yet just as focused. Here, Peele is concerned not only with duality but with sin and consequence, using the concept of the double to explore how our actions have direct impacts not only on ourselves but on humanity as a whole. After all, what is humanity if not a reflection of the actions of all those who find themselves a part of it? Our movements, our passions, our choices and decisions. All of this, good or bad, shapes us and sends our lives down specific, good or bad, pathways. This is demonstrated best in an unforgettable sequence that finds the film cutting between four iterations of the same character across two moments in time, set beneath a piece of music so thunderous it’ll shake your skull for days.
Us is monumental for the horror genre, a piece of film making that understands itself down to the cells in its core. It’s bigger than anything we’ve seen the genre do for a long time, and inarguably not as universally pleasing as Peele’s prior feature. And yet, this is what makes Us such an immensely satisfying work. This is a fresh-faced director returning from an unmitigated triumph, proving to us he has more complex, challenging ideas behind him. Us lacks the surprise of Get Out, but makes up for it by being a denser, more ambitious feature. Comparing the two already feels like a losing battle. With Get Out, Peele showed up in this world and knocked us for six. With Us, he’s proved that he’s here to stay.
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Elisabeth Moss