Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the sophomore release from horror’s newest champion, Jordan Peele.
Us – ★★★★★
Jordan Peele took no prisoners with his debut feature, Get Out. It was a cutting satire, laced with horror and mischief, about self-congratulatory progressives in suburbia, systemically racist and completely unaware of it. Already The Sunken Place has become a well-known part of the horror canon, the then-first-time director’s love for the genre equipping him with enough smarts to add his own voice to the scene.
Following the Oscar-winning Get Out – a film which still feels like a cultural moment – with something like Us is a daring move. Peele could have churned out a few more Get Outs before feeling the pressure to innovate again. Instead, Us is a high-concept, image-laden horror, with much more bubbling under the surface than before.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide, a woman still feeling the effects of a sinister encounter from when she was young. Returning to the place it happened as an adult with her husband Gabe and their kids, Zora and Jason, the sense that something isn’t right barely has time to settle before a family of four stand menacingly outside their front door. A swift invasion follows, and the intruders turn out to be the family’s doppelgangers.
Peele has been fierce in calling for plot details to remain sparse, so that’s as specific as this review will get – all of which is in the trailer.
With all this subtext, imagery, twists and turns, that its core idea – how can we live with ourselves? – remains is the sign of a commanding director.
He has also been clear: Us isn’t about race. Which isn’t to say it’s not about race; the mere act of having a black family front a horror film without their blackness being a part of it is in itself still noteworthy, and will be until such a thing is normalised, something long overdue.
With its subtleties, it’s a film embracing debate and multiple interpretations, its ode to other films in the genre as detailed as its lofty themes.
Even its title is littered with dualities. Us, as in a collective group. Us, as in the US. In both those meanings is the inclusion of the many, undivided by race, or ideology, or class. It’s an all-encompassing term implying a togetherness, something which must be viewed as ironic in a film with doppelgangers. Yet togetherness plays a key part in the film, the Hands Across America campaign from 1986 referenced as symbolic of a nation at peace. With the film’s binaries, the handholding of the 80s which was fuelled by charity and compassion is turned on its head when it’s attempted in the modern day.
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Redness is everywhere throughout the film, generally a symbol for anger, danger. Here, in an American context, it comes to represent the Republican party too, a new layer added to the colour’s meaning. It connects right-wing ideologies with the more common themes associated with red, like violence. In some places, it’s present from the off, while in others it increases over time, spreading like a sickness as the film becomes evermore mad.
It’s a madness balanced between existential terror and comedy. Winston Duke’s Gabe is often lovable and hapless, a way of relaxing into the film, joking at all the worst times, bickering when it’s the last thing to be doing. He’s the uncool dad who dabs and thinks owning a boat will endear him to his kids. While the film is undoubtedly in the horror genre – will the Golden Globes agree? – it’s also straight-up entertaining, with big performances, awesome set-pieces, and memorable music cues.
Michael Abel’s score complements the balance, his operatic motifs disturbing enough, but knowing in such a way they can’t help but illicit a smirk. It’s when the film is deep down the rabbit hole his sounds become twisted and sharp, the track Pas De Deux in particular akin to the dance sequence from Annihilation, otherworldly and doused in threat. It’s a tight composition too, disciplined in such a way it acts as a reminder that everything else in the film is just as competently constructed.
Less direct than Peele’s previous feature, Us relies on the viewer to make sense of what it all means, what it is alluding to, how it all comes together. It works as a horror experience, with enough nastiness and creepiness to chide over purists, moments of gore comically paired with pop music. But digging deeper, it offers enough for personal readings, which may dissatisfy some, perhaps more concerned with ideas than logic.
I never felt like the film got away from Peele. With all this subtext, imagery, twists and turns, that its core idea – how can we live with ourselves? – remains is the sign of a commanding director. Its technical achievements, from a deliberate colour palette and detail given to the specific movement of characters, to the jagged score and sharp sound design, all work to enable that abstract thought: when everything that is happening right now is said and done, how will we ever move on from it?