Sophomore efforts can be difficult for filmmakers who hit it out of the park the first time. And Jordan Peele did not just bat a home run when he wrote and directed Get Out—the pop culture-seizing and box office-smashing horror film that netted Peele a screenplay Oscar and the attention of every type of moviegoer, from genre to prestige—he hit it into a quarter billion-dollar orbit. Whereas other directors in similar situations would go on to resist trying to expand on the themes of their first effort, Peele uses them as a foundation for something far grander and more audacious in Us.
Keeping his promise that the next film would not technically be about race in America, Peele instead has crafted a horror movie that’s an allegory for life in the U.S. It’s also one that is defiantly more horrific, in the genre sense, than anything in the satirical Get Out, while likewise being more viscerally evocative. Uniting with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who’s been the DP on some of the most visibly dazzling chillers of recent years, including It Follows, Peele crescendoes his intimate family drama into a stealth 116-minute epic that might be the most beautiful-looking horror movie of this decade, as well as perhaps the most top heavy. With money to burn after an Oscar win, Peele is scaling lofty heights, and heading toward an altitude that many fans will not necessarily expect. But with moments as fearsome as Lupita Nyong’o standing in high-morning light on a boardwalk engulfed by fire, Peele’s reach is very long, indeed, even if the grasp remains slightly longer.
With a premise that could’ve easily been trimmed down to fit an old Twilight Zone (a horror project Peele is also involved in), Us is initially quite personable in scope. Embracing the type of supernatural magical realism that’s become a staple of this era, Us follows the affable Wilson family as they meet their darker selves. A comfortably affluent nuclear unit Adelaide and Gabe Wilson (Nyong’o and Winston Duke) are returning to their annual vacation home at a lake alongside their adolescent daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex). They’re also content there, even if Gabe can barely hide his envy of their slightly better-off friends, the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker).
Still, Adelaide carries a secret she tells no one, even her husband. When she was a young girl, she entered a decrepit hall of mirrors in a seedy amusement park on the Santa Cruz beach. All her life, she’s feared ever going back, but when Gabe is insistent they do (he has to brag to the Tylers about a new boat he bought), her son Jason is beckoned to the same rundown mirrors. That night four shadowy figures follow the Wilsons home: literal doppelgangers of themselves, clad in red jumpsuits reminiscent of prison attire, and each carrying razor-sharp scissors. They’re not here to cut paper.
To say more would be a spoiler, but what is not is that the film’s vast ideas, from the familial to the national, are grounded in the easygoing naturalism of the Wilsons, most especially its matriarchal head. Nyong’o, one of the decade’s breakout stars who has long struggled with being offered complex leading roles in wide Hollywood releases, embodies not one, but two marvelous parts in Us. As Adelaide, Nyong’o depicts a mother forced to be the center of a family fraying at all ends, even as she constantly looks ready to unravel herself well before the ominous figures attempt to break into her house. Additionally, more than any of the other doubles here, Nyong’o’s fractured reflection of Adelaide is a deceptively layered monster. A quiet creature of physically devastating effect, Nyong’o’s literally dueling performances become a high-wire act that centers the film’s focus even when its gaze becomes vaguely unwieldy during the finale.
Winston Duke is also a tremendous asset to the film. Prior to its SXSW opening night screening, Peele joked audiences will have to stop referring to the Trinbagonian-American actor as Black Panther’s “M’Baku,” and he isn’t exaggerating since Wilson makes an excellent doppelganger of Peele himself. Like a beefier version of the writer-director, his mild-mannered and nerdy exterior belies the innocuous insulation of the Wilsons; he’s too complacent in his contentedness to see what’s below or around him. He also proves to be the source for much of Us’ humor. More textured than comic relief (that would be Heidecker’s role), Gabe nevertheless offers a release valve when next to Nyong’o’s fever-pitch.
And the rest of the film attempts to match that boil. Indulging in a greater genre aesthetic than Get Out, Us plays with the type of mythical storybook-like logic of many of the horror films Peele grew up watching in the ‘80s. Peele still wears his influences on its sleeves—the opening shot includes a VHS copy of C.H.U.D., and in the scene where Jason wanders off on a beach, his shirt not-so-subtly features the visage of a great white shark. However, the film also features a greater sophistication in its inspirations, particularly of a 1970s paranoia variety, which underscores a desire to suggest macroaggressions on a historic, allegorical scale.
This approach ultimately does somewhat clash with its more traditional horror movie and home invasion story beats, particularly in the third act. A climactic exposition dump that attempts to present a rational explanation for its dreamlike metaphor becomes a bridge between islands that never needed to connect. It is easy to wonder if certain concessions were made for budgetary reasons, and some audiences will likely be divided by the film’s structure. While broadly about income inequality, class, and a myriad of other issues, the movie supplants much of Peele’s previous playfulness with an earnestness that dominates until the loaded final scene.
Yet these minor reservations will fade away quickly over time, as Us is a magnificent achievement that will reward diligent rewatching and debate for years to come. A massive effort that far exceeds its humble home invasion conceit, Peele’s sophomore effort holds as many secrets as the families it follows on both sides of the looking glass. Like the radiance of a sunrise striking fire on a crummy boardwalk’s white sand, the glow of the film’s vision outshines any of the debris it leaves in its wake.