Jordan Peele’s sophomore film continues the momentum generated by “Get Out.”
“Get Out” broke out in a year riddled with well-made horror films, but with “Us,” Jordan Peele shows that his first project never fully utilized the former Comedy Central star’s masterful ability to unsettle. For his second movie, he switches the setting from upstate New York with suburban California and swaps the white liberal villains of his first film for a family of doppelgängers.
The basic plot of the film follows the Wilson family, played by Winston Duke, Lupita Nyong’o, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, who get attacked by carbon copies of themselves hell-bent on destruction. These actors not only played the normal characters of Gabe, Adelaide, Zora and Jason, but also the murderous Abraham, Red, Umbrae and Pluto, respectively. Nyong’o’s performance stands above the rest, and the work of Peele to show the main cast the horror classics that influenced him the most, could very well end with an Oscar for both him and Nyong’o.
The scares in “Us” come from all angles. Peele utilizes a mix of jump scares, graphic violence and creepy dialogue to startle, shock and unnerve viewers, and he never seems heavy handed while doing it. “Us” finds a way to build a sense of dread by sacrificing multiple jump scares for scenes where the impending danger is completely obvious to the audience, giving viewers just enough time to see what is about to happen but not enough for anyone on screen to react.
The soundtrack makes the movie that much scarier. One bloody sequence set to “Good Vibrations” and “Fuck the Police” probably resulted in multiple movie goers nodding their heads to a brutally violent scene. Additionally, “I Got Five On It,” featured prominently in the trailer, gets slowed down and distorted later in the movie to remind you of the family car ride and the seemingly careless time when it was last heard.
Peele’s work in “Us” should assure those looking forward to the reboot of “The Twilight Zone” that the classic TV series is in good hands. What could have been a sophomore slump is instead reason for anyone who sees “Us” to have an incessant need to pre-order tickets to whatever film Peele decides to tackle in his third effort.
Just to recap, because the ending and lore behind “Us” is a trip, the doppelgängers are called “tethered” and are souless shadows of real people created by the U.S. government. At the end of the movie, after all the family’s tethered but Adelaide’s has been killed off, Red kidnaps Jason and forces Adelaide to follow her down into the underground where the tethered are forced to live. Red taunts and lures Adelaide into a fight where she is greatly outmatched. However, Adelaide wins, and it is revealed that she was in fact the tethered. Instead of merely frightening a young Adelaide, she knocked her out and swapped places with her.
Though not an obvious twist, the “Thriller” t-shirt alluding at the plot-twist of Jackson as a zombie in the music video, Red’s ability to speak unlike the actual tethered and Adelaide’s erratic behaviour due to her non-human nature all act as signposts towards the big reveal at the end. There were many articles claiming that Peele was “the new Hitchcock” and then there were a few articles claiming that, no, “He’s the first Jordan Peele.” However, I agree with the former to a point.
No, Peele is not working in a mostly unmapped area of film like Hitchcock, but the Master of Suspense could never have included the subtle commentary of “Us” or the explicit indictment of progressive racism in “Get Out.” But he is the next Hitchcock in that he truly understands what unnerves his viewers. He knows how to get at them in every way and does it successfully. He best exemplifies this in an interview when he was asked if the recent reupping of allegations against Michael Jackson would have made him dial back references to the King of Pop in “Us.” Peele’s response was that, given the chance to remake the film today, he would “include a few more [“Thriller”] shirts.” If “Get Out” showed us how he could unnerve us while focusing more on social currents than suspense, then “Us” flips that script while using both methods.
Another incredible thing the movie does is subvert expectations. The trailers marketed “Us” as a nearly bare-bones home invasion film. The doppelgängers looked to be the only twist. Instead, Peele creates a conspiracy theory come true that focuses on one family and their intricate role in its happening. Yes, part of that bigger context begins to break when too many questions are asked, but many parts are left unexplained entirely. These parts might be the most unsettling because maybe there aren’t answers. Peele uses ambiguity in “Us” because he understands that those unexplained things we see on the news all of the time might be some of the scariest things we see or read about.
Overall, the movie works as so many different forms of horror, and Peele has now made movie goers check twice every time they look in a mirror. Everyone should see the movie and be prepared to see anything else Peele decides to make.