Writer-director Jordan Peele has created another marvelous new American horror story.
This is a spoiler-free advanced review of Us from its premiere at SXSW. Us will be in theaters on Friday, March 22, 2019.
With Us, writer-director Jordan Peele proves that he’s no one-trick pony after the success of his Oscar-winning Get Out in 2017. Where Get Out is a racially-conscious thriller, Us is less concerned about social commentary and more horror-focused, with an ample amount of comedy sprinkled throughout. The one aspect the two movies have in common – a credit to Peele’s skill as a storyteller – is that both are difficult to pin to one particular genre. If there’s anything to compare Us to, it would have to be the Twilight Zone, which Peele is fittingly adapting for CBS All Access. The only thing missing is Rod Serling’s narration before the opening credits.
Stephen King writes about three depictions of terror in his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre: the gross-out, the horror, and the last and worst of them all, terror. King says terror is “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…” The profound sense of dread that the iconic author illustrates is an apt description of the mood and overall tone that Peele achieves here. Peele takes what King says about the genre and effectively adds his own playful tone, filled with scares, humor, and an unexpected ending that begs for a second viewing.
Us centers on the Wilsons, a seemingly normal middle-class family of four on vacation at their summer home near the California coast. But like any good Twilight Zone episode, there’s a sense that not everything is as picturesque as the beautiful beaches and lakeside retreats might lead you to believe. Peele effectively creates this ominous tone first and foremost through strong character development, especially with Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther). Nyong’o portrays Adelaide, the matriarch of the family, who is haunted by a traumatic experience she had as a young girl while on a similar vacation with her mom and dad. The use of flashbacks to Adelaide’s childhood provides valuable insight into why her character seems so sad and often paranoid about the world around her. Nyong’o embodies the trauma of her character well, as she teeters on the edge of sanity with every new frightening development.
When Adelaide’s worst fears come true, and a terrifying doppelganger family shows up on their driveway wearing red jumpsuits and carrying large gold scissors, the story gets absolutely bonkers… in a good way. And while there are plenty of scares and creepy events happening all around, Peele balances the shock and awe with some hilarious moments courtesy of the dad, Gabe (played by another Black Panther alum, Winston Duke). Gabe’s happy-go-lucky personality is the perfect counterpoint to Adelaide’s somber demeanor and even when the Wilsons’ doppelgangers are terrorizing them, he finds time to crack a joke or make a hilarious observation about the crazy situation they’re all in. Gabe keeps Us from taking itself too seriously.
Since Us is a family affair, the kids – Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) – get their time to shine as well. It’s enjoyable to watch them go up against their respective doppelgangers, which also gives the young performers a chance to show off their acting chops. The scissor-wielding counterparts are very different in terms of their mannerisms, especially in their physicality. Jason’s double creepily moves in an animalistic fashion, whereas Zora’s just smiles wickedly and runs really, really fast. Peele wisely manages the time spent with the kids so they don’t feel like an afterthought. In contrast to another scary flick like A Quiet Place, Zora and Jason don’t feel as vulnerable as Regan and Marcus did, which lends itself to The Twilight Zone comparison. This reality is unlike any other, so it’s ok if innocent kids suddenly turn into confident killers.
In a movie where scissors, bats, and fireplace pokers are used as weapons, there’s bound to be some blood splatter — but Peele doesn’t unleash all of the gore at once, and opts for a slow-build of violence that gets more graphic over time. Peele’s technique adds suspense and tension because you’re never quite sure when the gross-out moments are about to occur – sometimes he pulls the camera back, leaving the slicing and dicing sounds as our only indicator as to what might be happening, while during other instances, Peele keeps the camera focused on the mayhem so you can squirm in your seat.
Peele’s command of music is another standout in Us. The film uses a mixture of acquired tracks, like NWA’s “F*** the Police” during more comedic moments, but when Peele wants to create a more haunting mood, composer Michael Abels’ (Get Out) original score is fantastic. The instrumental version of Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” is particularly memorable during the movie’s more dramatic moments. Everything going on behind the camera is top-notch as well. Peele, along with It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, knows how to create a sense of dread. During one of the flashbacks, there’s a gorgeous and haunting shot of young Adelaide walking on the beach with an approaching storm brewing in the distance. The lightning and thunderclap set the tone for the chaos that’s about to ensue. Peele and Gioulakis say a lot without any dialogue.