Doppelgängers. Scissors. Red jumpsuits. This is Us: no, not the tear-jerker TV show on NBC, Jordan Peele’s rabidly-anticipated follow-up to Get Out, his debut horror film which was an unprecedented box office success and garnered four Oscar nominations. After rebranding himself a master of terror, all eyes have been on the development of Peele’s second film, and fans have been anxiously awaiting to see if the former comedian can replicate the same level of scares a second time around. That he does, as Us is another instant classic to add to the genre.
Get Out not only broke the record for highest-grossing debut for a film based on an original screenplay in Hollywood history, it was the highest-reviewed movie of 2017 on Rotten Tomatoes. None of this happened by mistake, as the film was an innovative masterpiece that was rife with social subtext. Starring Daniel Kaluuya as a young black photographer who is targeted by his white girlfriend’s family to seize his body and have his consciousness overtaken by that of a white person’s, the film was a subtle, yet scathing and sharp commentary on American culture.
After Get Out was showered with acclaim by both critics and audiences alike, Peele has elected to continue in the horror genre by following up his debut with Us. As Get Out’s scares were more related to actual life, and were more existential and psychological in nature, Peele has labeled the work on Twitter as a “documentary,” while “Us is a horror movie.” Having seen both films, Peele’s descriptions are accurate, as Us draws on genre conventions and delves much deeper into fiction than his previous work, but his metaphors and social commentary are as palpable as ever.
Us stars the massively-talented Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a mother of two who, along with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), is traveling with her son and daughter to Santa Cruz for a family vacation in their summer home. When Adelaide was a little girl, she had a traumatic incident at the boardwalk in which she got separated from her parents and she wandered into the house of mirrors on the beach. Inside, she encountered a little girl who looked exactly like her, only it wasn’t her reflection. As an adult, Adelaide has a bad feeling about coming back.
Once settled back into Santa Cruz, things seem a little off. Adelaide keeps observing coincidences involving mirror images of objects and shapes. After a stressful day at the beach in which her son Jason wanders off (Evan Alex), Adelaide’s unease only worsens. Suddenly, Jason enters the room with an announcement that will put chills down your spine: “there’s a family in our driveway.” While Gabe is skeptical there’s any danger at first, the menacing group manages to break in and reveal what they are: malicious doppelgängers of each family member, and they’re out for blood.
The film was inspired by an episode of The Twilight Zone (the same series of which Peele is hosting a revival right now) wherein a woman encounters a doppelgänger of herself that tries to take over her life, but the similarities begin and end there. Us is a wholly original work in which there is little to compare it to, especially when you factor in the mythology that is partially explained in the third act. With this film, Peele proves himself a student of the genre, demonstrating influence from prior works, and especially those based on Stephen King and The Shining.
What is destined to be one of the film’s most iconic sequences pictures the Wilsons terrified on the couch, pitted across the room from their savage doppelgängers, under venomous study as Red, Adelaide’s double and the apparent ringleader, begins to explain where they came from. In this scene and others, Nyong’o stuns with astonishing range as she fashions a horrifying villain characterized by peculiar twitches and a hoarse, throaty speaking voice. It’s this disturbing figure that leaves Adelaide speechless and in tears, in a jaw-dropping double role from Nyong’o.
In fact, the entire cast is on double duty, and even the new-coming child actors are up to the task of rendering each member of the Wilson family as sympathetic as their alter-egos are unsettling. Winston Duke for one is a pleasure as the Wilsons’ lovable, awkward teddy-bear father, and he is just as daunting as Gabe’s hulking, howling doppelgänger. The family’s plight is effectively set against a hair-raising soundtrack by composer Michael Abels, re-teaming with Peele again after Get Out, as well as a perfectly chosen remix of “I’ve Got Five On It” by 90s hip-hop duo Luniz.
And just as Get Out had thought-provoking themes of racial tensions woven into its DNA, Peele has constructed an equally-fascinating extended metaphor in the premise of his sophomore feature. This one, however, is more ambiguous and up for debate than his previous film. While Get Out focused primarily on race, Us appears to center more on American culture at large, perhaps positing that we are each our own worst enemy in effecting change, or maybe that our ideological polarizations are tearing us apart. Which one is it? That’s up to the viewer to decide.
It’s when the film digs deeper into its mythological foundations however, that the cracks start to show. The concept of Us is much more elaborate, and consequently much more ambitious than Get Out, leaving Peele open to more criticism. Who are the doppelgängers? Where did they come from? As the answers begin to roll out, Peele tends to offer only more confusion than closure. There just might be a sequel, so I’ll wait until then before I dole out my harshest judgment. Until then, Us is still a spectacular horror film, and further proof of Peele’s directorial prowess.