Bonkers, dense and straight up scary.
“Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape…” This excerpt from Jeremiah 11:11, a recurring image throughout Us, is an overly simple but elegant briefing on the gruesome doppelgänger hijinks of Jordan Peele’s latest effort.
What’s particularly refreshing about the film is its unashamed normality, placing an everyday African-American family at its centre in a cliché-free, (not exactly) safe space. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) are enjoying a lakeside summer vacation, when bizarre, violent, and unintelligible versions of themselves appear at their home, dressed in blood-red jumpsuits and armed with gold, nerve-shreddingly sharp scissors.
Well, they aren’t all having fun prior to the invasion – Adelaide has had a life-long battle with PTSD after a mysterious event from her youth. What many considered was irrational is personified in Red (also Nyong’o), her resentful apparition.
Peele takes a standard three-act structure; creepy build-up, unpredictable madness, and a revelatory climax. The first two are almost perfect, balancing astutely observed humour (“You can kiss my anus” one of the kids says) and a permeating, dogged sense of dread, assembling into a beast through tiny coincidences and ruthlessly employed chase sequences.
Similarly to Get Out, Us is often fiercely intelligent. Peele’s characters don’t always obey the laws of horror, bashing what you expect with a bloody putter. This isn’t a gore-fest though; through tasteful jump scares and genuinely terrifying power dynamics, the director/writer establishes that his earlier Oscar-winning genre piece was no fluke. The likening to Hitchcock has been flying off the pages recently; though their styles are very different, the potential cultural impact of Peele’s (probably masterful) oncoming portfolio of terror is an interesting prospect.
Though, Us does bear one similarity to Hitchcock’s work – the score. Frantic footsteps, paranoid tip-toeing; it’s all punctuated by the screeching composition of Michael Abels, riffing on Herrmann but also evolving alongside the cherry-picked selection of ready-made bangers; from a haunting remix of I’ve Got 5 On It to N.W.A’s Fuck Tha Police.
The performances are astounding across the board, embodying all the elements of relatable people and opposing monsters. The kids are totally committed to the role, particularly Alex with arachnid-like skittering. Duke essentially plays the funny Dad (a role which definitely suits him) but plays charmingly against the star; Nyong’o. Both sides of her turn are mesmerizing; you believe in the constant anxiety of Adelaide, but cower under the twitchy gaze and throaty verbalisms of Red. (An early shout for a Best Actress nomination next year, for sure.)
Mike Gioulakis’ visceral cinematography pops from the opening frames of a moonlit, stormy fairground, through stylishly manipulated shadows on a sunny beach, to the impressive use of a split diopter that pierces any senses left unperturbed.
However, it’s in the third act when the plot starts to open up and through a tunnel of heavy exposition, lose momentum. One can’t dispute its nature as an utterly mental conclusion, but unlike the calculated message of Get Out, Us is much more elastic. That in itself makes it an intriguing watch, and although the closing revelations don’t quite provoke an ass-slapping bamboozle, there’s much to love, fear and learn. A metaphor for good intentions gone bad? A lesson on the monsters inside us and how we’re our own worst enemy? See it, think about it, see it again (then wait for Peele’s third feature).
A sharp, sophomore thrill ride that lingers long after like a shadow.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm