Jordan Peele has survived the sophomore slump. With the bar set so high by his directorial debut Get Out, many were unsure how his next cinematic effort could possibly match, let alone exceed, the same heights of that film. But Peele, clearly not deterred by a good challenge, continues to poise himself as one of the next greats in horror cinema: Us may not have the same monumental impact as Get Out, but it stands as another remarkable achievement for the rising auteur nonetheless.
In some ways, it’s almost unfair to compare Us to Get Out: while the latter film took a slow burn approach, twisting and turning its way to a full-blown mind-bender of a third act, Us finds Peele hitting the gas from the get-go and rarely easing off the pedal. From the opening scene – a flashback that sets the scene with an eerie, music-free introduction to our protagonist Adelaide (Madison Curry in this sequence, Lupita Nyong’o in the present day) – to the haunting first glimpse of the doppelgangers that haunt Adelaide and the rest of the Wilson family throughout the rest of their Santa Cruz vacation, Peele provides a kind of horror that’s far more visceral and frantic, and more cut-and-dry, than the psychological (and socially topical) scares of Get Out. Blood and gore aren’t uncommon as the Wilson family takes drastic measures against their doppelgangers; fortunately, Peele builds to the moments of bloodshed and makes them feel earned. Tension is slowly amplified as each encounter teeters the line of violence, building fear as to which character will escape every new altercation when carnage finally breaks out.
With a more physical approach to horror comes an ensemble of performances that completely embrace the film’s craziness. Each member of the cast pulls double duty, playing both their normal character and their doppelganger counterpart, referred to within the film’s lore as “The Tethered.” From the comedic performances of Winston Duke and Tim Heidecker (the latter more so than the former, who rations the comedy more sporadically as the film progresses) to strong child performances from Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, to Elisabeth Moss, who almost steals the show with a single, breathtaking showcase of silent acting: everyone here is in top form. It’s Lupita Nyong’o, though, who dominates every scene. As Adelaide, she provides a fearful but resilient maternal determination; as Adelaide’s Tether, “Red,” she’s a dissonant combination of graceful, unhinged, and animalistic. At points, the opposing natures of these two characters almost seem to blend into each other: it’s a masterful showcase of Nyong’o’s wonderful talents as a leading actress.
Working on a larger budget ($20 million compared to Get Out’s $4.5 million) provides Peele with a much larger playground to explore his directorial capabilities in too. Teaming up with cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, who has shot some of the most gorgeous horror-thrillers of the past five years (It Follows, Split, Glass), he brings a wonderful understanding of color and camera movement to Us. Composer Michael Abels provides a chilling choir-heavy main theme and a bombastic Bernard Hermann-esque score to accent the film’s terrors.
Most of all, Peele shows just how well he understands the horror genre. Routinely paying homage to genre classics via small, carefully placed easter eggs throughout, he carries on their legacy, forming a lived-in world rife with gradually escalating tension. Scares punctuated by loud blasts of sound are mostly few and far between: instead, Peele lets disturbing images linger in the background until he’s ready to spring them upon us. Despite a more traditional approach to the genre, Us opts for progression built on strong character moments, atmospheric tension, and chilling sound design, rather than cheap tricks or gimmicks.
While Peele’s technical prowess is a significant step up from his debut, the screenplay lacks the same tightness of Get Out’s. Itbalances the humor and horror with the same efficiency – there’s a needle-drop in one of the most intense setpieces of the film that is soaked in a cruel sense of humor, and several of the tension-breaking quips are laugh-out-loud funny – but much of Us hinges on a very late third act revelation that finds Peele perhaps biting off more than he can chew. It certainly raises several questions about everything witnessed prior, but some of the puzzle pieces seem to be missing. Time will tell if Peele’s trail of breadcrumbs will lead to satisfying reexaminations or threaten to unravel the entire narrative at its seams.
But Us perseveres in spite of this because Peele provides a far more esoteric message, one with many different possibilities to take away in relation to Get Out’s straightforward-in-hindsight race allegory. There are arguments to be made about the filmis a study of classism, or a look at the inherent evils that linger within each one of us that we may not even realize; the title itself, Us, carries a double meaning for U.S: the United States. Whatever the case: to see such a strange, hauntingly beautiful combination of traditional blockbuster filmmaking and biting examination of the faults of American society in the mainstream is weird and wild and wonderful. In his sophomore outing, Peele proves that he is no one-hit-wonder; at this rate, he might even eventually become one of the all-time greats.
Bigger and bolder, if slightly less refined, than his debut, Jordan Peele delivers another marvelous horror experience in his sophomore outing.