Jordan Peele gets horror. He understands the pace, the music, the tropes, and everything that came before him. It’s because the genre is so intertwined in his DNA that he can play in callbacks to classic horror films, turn them on their head, and establish films that shake us in our theater seats. Us is his latest venture in horror and it is both a slow-burning unsettling spectacle and a full-throttle assault on your heart.
Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Elizabeth Moss, the film centers around the Wilson family. Over summer vacation, the Wilsons are staying at their summer home and the nearby beach, Santa Cruz. However, childhood trauma rears its head as Adelaide (Nyong’o) begins to become increasingly unsettled and to the viewer and her family, paranoid. While her husband Gabe (Duke) is slow to believe his wife’s concern, when a group of doppelgängers begins to terrorize them in their home, they all realize that her fear is justified.
The world of Us is fully fleshed out. Although we never hear all of them, each doppelgänger has a name, and as we see them interact with themselves and their other halves, personalities. The character designs of Red, Abraham, Umbrae, and Pluto live in the uncanny valley. They are their opposites, Adelaide, Gabe, and their children Zora (Wright Joseph) and Jason (Alex) but they aren’t. Small details in the faces of the actors are altered on their other-selves making their appearance unsettling, even if it is just their silence, their presence in every scene is chilling.
The tension is built, not only in the astonishing stunt work but in the directorial eye. As we follow each character in their own encounters, with the exception of a few instances, we only see what they see. We aren’t in the first person, but we are at their level, which leaves the audience in the dark as the plot and action picks up momentum. From the use of obscuring the faces of Adelaide’s parents in the opening to focussing in on Zora as she runs for her life, Peele masterfully tracks his characters and leaves us in the unknown.
As the characters fight, we fight. As they discover, we discover. This also adds weight to the small number of effective jump scares in the film. Used sparingly, Peele’s brand of theater horror relies on making his viewer uncomfortable not by a face appearing in a mirror. There are moments throughout the film where a jump could have been used but instead, the doppelgängers slowly reveal themselves, making you question how you missed them.
There is a space in horror, the moment before the scare, where the terror of the impending moment slowly builds on itself. Us lives there. The film builds like waves and crashes over you, and like the prominent ocean in the film, once you’re caught in the tide, Peele doesn’t let you go.
For what Peele does in his directing, he matches with his writing. As a creator, his intimate knowledge of the genre consistently shows itself. References and moments hide in the film and when they show it’s like nodding at someone in the same band shirt as you as they pass. This is a film for horror fans. It uses symbols and tropes that establishes the rules of the film only to turn them on their head. From the music accompanying the credits at the start of the film to the use of the Beach Boys, there are small pieces of the film that add more depth.
All of this said the film is nothing without its characters. The caliber of acting displayed in this film is such that an Academy Award nomination should be in order. To play one character is hard. To emote and to tether the audience to your character’s fear and determination is hard enough. But when you add in having to play the evil on screen as well, that’s a whole other feat. And every actor rose to that task.
Nyong’o’s presence is captivating, both as Adelaide and as Red. Her movements and eyes capture you with ease. Duke’s Gabe and Abraham provide moments of levity while also presenting us with some of the tensest moments of the film. Then, there are the children. Now, I don’t like kids in horror movies. More times than not they can’t pull the emotional responses to cause you to feel for them like good horror characters should.
That being said, Wright Joseph as Zora is endearing and living the teenage girl’s life we all know. She’s quippy and determined and very over her family vacation. Then, there is her as Umbrae. The unsettling stair, the head tilt, the speed, it is all terrifying. This intensity is matched by the other Wilson child. Alex’s Jason is cute, rambunctious, and the curious sort. When he meets Pluto, it’s his cool head and inquisitive mind that learns from the doppelgängers. While Alex’s Pluto is a character I had a time seeing on screen, in a good way. His movements and physicality, as well as what’s under the mask make their exchanges nerve-racking.
Overall, there isn’t an actor in this film who doesn’t stick with you, for whatever reason. This includes the excellent performance from Moss as Kitty. Although the characters’ dialogue is a testament to Peele, their ability to present those words as reality is solely on them and their dynamic range. But not only does he write creepy characters, but he also writes smart ones. Each member of the Wilson family thinks their ways through the situation, making good choices, a rarity in protagonists of the genre.
Finally, there is the score. With reimaginings of existing songs, creepy choir voices, and instrumentals that pull at every hair on your arm to stand up, the score is perfect. Each scene is perfectly matched to the music. There is a sequence where a character’s snapping is used in unison with the score to lead up to a moment. Michael Abels‘ music is horrific in all the good ways.
Although I can sing the praises of the film for more pages, I do have to note that the bread crumbs lefts for the reveals are a little too large. That being said, the acting and direction make up for a foreseeable plot point, especially the ending.
At the end of the night, Us is a film that tethers you to every moment and character. With this film, Peele solidifies his spot in the horror pantheon as both fan and director. His respect, love, and admiration of all those who came in the genre before he make his film the next step in the genre. By using callbacks effectively, Peele builds a new horror moment for viewers and will hopefully be a gateway for many of those just coming to the genre. Horror can be more than just a scary story. It can be visceral. It can be slow. It can be us.
At the end of the night, Us is a film that tethers you to every moment and character. With this film, Peele solidifies his spot in the horror pantheon as both fan and director…Horror can be more than just a scary story. It can be visceral. It can be slow. It can be us.