In just two movies, Jordan Peele has established himself as this generation's Wes Craven. Like Craven, Peele understands the power of the horror genre in exploring our fears and tackling societal issues. Get Out was a fascinating look at race relations in the guise of a possession film. His new film Us is a critique at the underbelly of Americans once we are faced with looking at ourselves in the guise of a home invasion thriller.
Like Craven, Peele is able to deftly switch between thrills, scares, and comedy. His directing skills are more confident here as in the expertly orchestrated opening sequence. A young girl is with her family at a carnival. She strays away from her parents and is drawn to a hall of mirrors. Inside she is surrounded by the image of herself until she comes across a reflection made into flesh. This kicks off a funhouse of striking imagery and stunning performances.
The film then jumps to find the little girl all grown up as Adelaide, Lupita Nyong'o in an award-worthy performance. She and her family return to the opening location on a vacation. One night, a family of doppelgangers shows up dressed in red and brandishing sheers and begins to terrorize them. Gabe,(Winston Duke) the patriarch of the family, is slow to see the threat of these doubles. Adelaide sees the threat immediately, remembering her encounter as a child.
The plot of Us is best kept a secret. It is full of twists and turns that should not be spoiled. Peele has made a less focused film here in comparison to the clear-eyed Get Out but one that excels in pacing and pushing the horror genre's boundaries. He has made a popcorn slasher with some strong ideas. However, what starts out as a direct critique of America becomes a little muddied as the third act expands the plot into some wild places. Adelaide's double introduces the insidious duplicate family as Americans and the film's title can double as U.S.. All of this signals that Peele is commenting on the national character. This doesn't completely track as the film hits its third act but I am confident repeat viewings of the film will reveal more. Us is often a minute by the minute intense watch that it is easy to miss some of the points Peele is making. Are the evil doppelgangers a representation of our worst impulses, a metaphor for class division or a version of our past selves?
This murkiness in meaning does nothing to hinder Us, which is a visceral watching experience full of scares and laughs. The performances all around are great but Nyong'o gives a performance on the level of Toni Collette in last year's Hereditary. It will go in the horror pantheon of great performances. Mike Gioulakis's cinematography often has you searching the frame. He utilizes the same great tracking shots he used to make It Follows such a scary experience.
Us is a film I will be thinking about for some time. I can't wait to see it again to parse out more of its meanings. Why does the son where a monkey mask and a tuxedo shirt? Does it represent minstrel look that haunted African Americans for decades? These kinds of questions might not be worth the effort if I didn't have such confidence in Peele's skills as a filmmaker. The film serves as a great precursor to Peele's upcoming reboot of The Twilight Zone and cements his place as one of the strongest voices in horror to emerge in some time.