Ever since the breakthrough film “Get Out” hit theaters with massive success in 2017, all eyes have been focused on director Jordan Peele in anticipation of his next work. With the March 22 release of his most recent thriller, “Us,” Peele yet again grabs audiences with a wickedly clever and properly terrifying production.
Set against the backdrop of Santa Cruz beach, “Us” centers around the Wilson family, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), who are confronted and attacked in Adelaide’s family beach home by a set of doppelgangers who refer to themselves as the “Tethered.” Aside from the initial horror of this encounter, as the film progresses the stakes are raised as the true intentions of these intruders are gradually revealed, through both current events and flashbacks to Adelaide’s childhood experiences in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Though the general outline may seem to follow tropes of the thriller/horror genre — unwelcome guests terrorizing a family in an old home, with implications of dark secrets from the past — the twists and turns carefully woven into the story make this film anything but typical. Without giving away any of the brilliantly shocking moments which are not only terrifying, but also completely unpredictable, it is safe to say that the nuances of this film do not simply live up to expectations, but exceed them.
The horror of “Us” is never overly in your face or obnoxious. Much of the terror of this film is expressed in what is unsaid — the characters give the audience just enough information to feel unsettled, but never so much that it becomes overwhelming. It is this subtlety that makes the overtly scary moments so powerful. Rather than overusing jump scares and graphic violence as is typical of the genre, “Us” sprinkles in sparse moments of intensity supported by a strong underlying story and overall sense of disturbance and foreboding.
Critical to this strength is main protagonist Adelaide and her counterpart Red, both played brilliantly by Nyong’o. Always a reliable powerhouse, Nyong’o outshines herself in these roles, diving into the characters with a deeply moving ferocity. Her seamless distinction between these two characters, each portrayed with a remarkable level of specificity and care, makes up the backbone of the film’s believability.
Running parallel to the disturbing horror that inhabits every corner of “Us” is also a self-aware, genuine humor, which elevates the emotional stakes in a way that a purely fear-centered film could not. Duke is refreshingly light-hearted and lovable as the comedic relief husband, which is especially notable alongside the intense performance of Nyong’o. Though he does not get much of a character arc, Duke’s interludes of oppositional opinions add to the dry humor, and the dynamic between him and Nyong’o is beautifully constructed.
Much of the excitement around director Peele’s earlier film, “Get Out,” centered around its unflinching social commentary — a trend which was hinted at, but not fully explored, in “Us.” Less of a social statement than a classic horror flick, “Us” did still feature a few nods to social issues, such as the “Tethered” referring to themselves as “Americans.” The difference in this film was in the subtlety of its messages — the gentle hand that intertwined terror with commentary. The use of the “Hands Across America” event as an ongoing metaphor throughout the film reflects this ambiguity. A seemingly random inclusion at its initial point, as the plot progressed it began to speak to the notion of America’s tendency toward forgetting those who are underprivileged.
While “Us” doesn’t provoke the complex social questions evident in “Get Out,” it still succeeds massively as a standalone horror thriller in its own right. It is genuinely scary as a subset of the horror genre, and its science fiction elements — though somewhat convoluted and confusing at times — are believable and well-thought-out within the context of the cinematic world. It reflects the expansion of Jordan Peele’s experimentation in the horror genre, and it is clear that his work is on track to continue to spark curiosity and well-deserved praise.