We are our own worst enemy in Jordan Peele’s latest social horror Us, a film that sees a family tormented at the hands of monsters who look just like them. It’s a terrific premise delivered with style in a slick, very frightening, great looking and funny home invasion slasher with a serious political message. OK, so some of the logic doesn’t hold up, but that’s a small niggle in the scariest, smartest horror movie of the year so far.
Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide Wilson, the matriarch of a family vacationing in their Santa Cruz beach house when a group of strangers dressed in red jumpsuits and wielding massive pairs of scissors arrives on their driveway. These four strangers look identical to the Wilsons – Adelaide, Gabe (Winston Duke) and their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) – or rather dark, harrowed, crazed versions intent on terrorising the family.
Terrorise them they do – and us, too. Peele shows once again what a deft hand he has for horror, keeping viewers squealing and squirming throughout. Us is tense and uncanny and while there are some excellent jump scares, the movie isn’t over-reliant on these, instead infusing the whole film with a creeping, escalating dread and even a sense of existential anxiety by the movie’s epic conclusion. What starts as an intimate family thriller widens out into something much bigger and more ambitious.
Lupita Nyongo’s the standout here – it’s her characters’ (both of them) movie and she shows a real aptitude for the weird, with her freaky, clicky vocal tones juxtaposed against her graceful dancer’s physicality. If horror wasn’t almost always ignored when it comes to major awards (although Get Out was an exception), then Nyong’o should be in contention next year for emotional depth and sheer range alone.
The doppelgangers are done so seamlessly it’s easy to forget you’re watching the same actor twice and ignore how technically accomplished the film is, too. The cinematography is gorgeous, from a lovely bit of foreshadowing with the family walking along the beach, their silhouettes stretched out beside them on the sand, to the eerie underground set piece at the end. Music is also key to the film – the whole movie has a rhythm to it and the soundtrack even plays a part in one of the best gags. There are Chekhov’s guns and callbacks all over the place in Us, but rather than feeling heavy-handed, it emphasises how efficient and accomplished Peele’s script is, invisibly meshing natural, funny dialogue with “this’ll be important later” detail.
Nyong’o’s may be the standout performance, but the whole cast is exceptional – including the kids. Evan Alex and other Evan Alex gets one of the most poignant and disturbing moments in the film and Shahadi Wright Joseph is an unexpected star player when it comes to ultraviolence. As well as placing a family of colour at the centre of the action, Us subverts genre stereotypes when it comes to gender, too. And the fact that you care deeply for the family at its heart elevates this even further from any bog standard thrill ride – thrilling though it is.
That, and of course the serious political and philosophical message at the movie’s core. Peele has said that this film isn’t about race – that may be true, but it is about class and privilege among other things. Playing with big ideas including the concept of the Jungian Shadow, giving them a hard genre twist and applying them to social themes, at times it’s a difficult watch. The title ‘Us’ works on multiple levels: Us as in “Oh my god, it’s us!”, a play on U.S., but also in the sense of “it’s us and them” – and most people watching this film are likely to fall in the category of ‘us’. As Winston Duke told Den Of Geek in our recent interview, “No one gets let off the hook.”
Why not a five-out-of-five then? We were torn, but Us is slightly let down by its high-concept genre trappings. While Us definitely does offer an explanation as to why and how the events of the film have occurred, rather than copping out with metaphor or a “you decide” ending, the big reveal is so convoluted it requires a Bond villain-style explanation, and prodded even slightly it doesn’t hold water. While this by no means spoils the film, it does mean post-movie discussions, which perhaps should be focused on political messages and favourite scares, are likely to descend into “Wait, what?” analyses of what actually went down – enjoyable though those discussions are.
Don’t be put off though. Other than that, Us is a near-perfect gem, subverting the horror genre while respecting its audience at the same time. Whether Peele can pull off the incredible feat he achieved with his first film in managing to break out into arthouse and mainstream audiences remains to be seen but, if nothing else, Us puts him squarely on the map as one of the most interesting and challenging writer-directors around.
Us opens in UK cinemas on 22 March