Us manages to be funny, freaky, and thrilling all at once, and marks another step forward in Peele's evolving sense of storytelling and craftsmanship.
Jordan Peele caught many people off-guard with his directorial debut on 2017's Get Out. The acclaimed horror-thriller was a big hit that went on to snag an Oscar for Peele's screenplay and firmly established the former Key & Peele comedian as a filmmaker on the rise. As such, moviegoers are a little more prepared for Peele's second movie Us, knowing now that the writer-director is a horror aficinado with someting to say (even if he's not necessarily commenting on racism in America, this time around). Still, even his biggest supporters may not be entirely ready for the twisted concoction that Peele's asssembled for his sophomore feature. Us manages to be funny, freaky, and thrilling all at once, and marks another step forward in Peele's evolving sense of storytelling and craftsmanship.
Naturally, there are parallels between Get Out and Us, like the way that they both start out with characters going on what promises to be a fairly normal trip - even after a foreboding prologue that lets us know that all is not right in this world. In Us' case, that means a summer vacation to the Wilson family beach house, with husband Gabe and wife Adelaide (Black Panther costars Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong'o) leading their children Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) along the way. The movie's first act does an excellent job of building up tension in the process, while at the same time laying the foundation for the story developments to come in ways both subtle and overtly threatening. And that's alll before the trouble really hits the fan and the Wilsons look out in their driveway one night to see (bizarre as it seems) doppelgängers of themselves... ones that definitely do not come in peace.
From the very beginning, Us serves to showcase Peele's improvements as a director since his debut on Get Out. The sound editing in the film's prologue alone is richly detailed and specific, as are the subjective camera angles that Peele and his DP Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, Split) use to make something as inocuous as a boardwalk carnival appear ominous and dangerous onscreen. These early scenes in particular further illustrate how much better Peele has gotten at using silence and a lack of music to create suspense since he began directing, as does his later usage of Get Out composer Michael Abels' score (which, like his prior work, is fueled by spooky chorus singing and unsettling orchestral compositions). Peele doesn't drop the ball when the movie becomes more action-driven either and succeeds in crafting some genuinely exciting set pieces here, while at the same time carrying over the visual motifs introduced in Us' first third (reflections, mirror images, doubles, and so on).
Meanwhile, Peele's script here is as carefully structured as his screenplay for Get Out and finds ways to organically weave humor into the mix throughout the story, in ways that befit the movie's generally off-kilter tone. It helps that the main cast is strong across the board and make their characters feel like fully-rounded individuals, both before and after their doubles (aka. The Tethered) show up. Speaking of which: Nyong'o is the standout here in the dual roles of Adelaide and her doppelgänger "Red", which allow the Oscar-winner to flex her acting muscles in surprising and engaging ways. At the same time, she's able to generate real sympathy for both characters and give them distinct personalities, despite the fact that (obviously) they are dark reflections of one another. Duke is also pretty great in the film, especially since his role as the loveably adorkable dad Gabe is worlds apart from his breakout performance as the Wakandan warrior M'Baku.
The one element of Us that might prove to be relatively divisive is the film's central metaphor - or, more specifically, whether it has one. Peele, in another move that signals his continuing maturation as a storyteller, ultimately ties everything together here in a way that makes it clear that there's a deeper parable behind the larger narrative, but leaves room for audiences to interpret it as they will. As such, there are certainly different yet equally valid ways to read into Us, based on the film's themes about trauma, privilege, fractured social identities, and, of course, what it even means to battle your "other self". In that regard, the movie really works as a spiritual descendant of the original Twilight Zone (a series that, fittingly, Peele will revive in April) and skips over spoon-feeding its messages to audiences, in an effort to encourage them to consider the darkness that simmers beneath the surface of our society (quite literally, in the Us universe).
While Peele could've easily rested on his laurels with his sophomore feature and tried to simply recreate what he did so well on Get Out, he instead chose to challenge himself as a filmmaker and tackle a thought-provoking horror allegory that might be even more layered than his breakout effort. Suffice it to say, Us is a must-see for cinephiles and is sure to generate lots of interesting post-screenings discussions about what the film's saying and the symbolism baked into the narrative (not to mention, its clever use of '90s pop songs). For everyone else, Us is just like Get Out in the way that it wants to entertain and make audiences laugh and scream (sometimes within the same scene), while also serving up social commentary without feeling like a sermon. In short: Jordan Peele the director is not only here to stay, he's also just getting started.
Us is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 116 minutes long and is rated R for violence/terror, and language.
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- Us (2019) release date: Mar 22, 2019