Director: Jordan Peele
Cast : Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 57 mins
Opens : 21 March 2019
Rating : NC16
It took many a while to wrap their heads around the fact that Jordan Peele, best known as one half of the comedy duo Key and Peele, has become a modern-day master of horror. His feature film directorial debut Get Out was hailed as a game-changer and won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Now, Peele is back to frighten us with Us.
The film centres on Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family: husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). They’re on vacation at their Santa Cruz beach house, meeting their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) Tyler, who have twin daughters Gwen (Cali Sheldon) and Maggie (Noelle Sheldon). On their first night at the beach house, Adelaide and Gabe discover strangers standing in their driveway. These strangers, known as ‘the Tethered’, look exactly like them. Their arrival unleashes a string of eerie, chaotic occurrences, with the family fighting for their lives to defeat their evil duplicates.
There’s something inherently unsettling in the concept of a doppelgänger: nobody knows us better than we know ourselves, so coming face to face with someone who is physically identical to oneself but otherwise a complete stranger does inspire paranoia. Writer-director Peele, who is presenting the new Twilight Zone reboot, was inspired by the episode “Mirror Image” from the original Twilight Zone series.
While Get Out was a horror comedy which was heavy on the social commentary, Peele set out to make what is tonally a more traditional horror movie. There are still several well-placed jokes, but Us is primarily a masterclass in mood setting. The atmospherics are full-on creepy and there are many tense, disturbing moments which Peele plays to the hilt. The score by Michael Abels packs in the Bernard Hermann-esque shrieking strings but is a safe distance away from a cliched horror movie soundtrack.
There’s still a deeper underlying message, one that is deliberately vague and open to interpretation. The Tethered could represent the oppressed lower castes of society, with their counterparts oblivious to their existence and their plight until a violent uprising occurs. Peele has stated that the movie is not specifically about race, so perhaps it’s mainly about class. There’s a lot of symbolism which you can bet will be eagerly dissected by casual viewers and film students alike.
Peele displays a keen awareness of iconography. Enduring horror movie villains can often be tied to specific props, costumes or physical attributes, be it Jason Voorhees’ machete and ski mask or Leatherface’s human skin mask and chainsaw. In Us, the Tethered have those red jumpsuits and very pointy gold scissors – this is destined to be a popular Halloween costume. The actors enjoy playing up the creepiness of the Tethered, but not so much that the characters become caricatures.
Nyong’o does a lot of heavy lifting and is excellent in her dual roles as Adelaide and her Tethered counterpart Red. Adelaide struggles with deep-seated trauma from an incident in her childhood, and when the attack happens, is frightened but ultimately capable. As Red, Nyong’o essays an off-kilter physicality, walking about swiftly and with her back ramrod straight. As either character, she remains focused and determined and is a big part of why Us works.
Winston Duke, who like Nyong’o also co-starred in Black Panther, plays a character who’s prone to dad jokes and is a little silly, but who’s also always ready to step up and protect his family.
It’s always a little tricky putting kids in horror movies, because placing children in peril for the sake of a few scares can feel manipulative. That, and kids in horror movies tend to be annoying. Shahadi Wright Joseph’s Zora is the teenager prone who’s on her phone all the time and prone to an eye roll or two, while Evan Alex’s Jason very much lives in his own world. Wright Joseph has perfected the creepy smile as Zora’s double Umbrae, while Jason’s double is a pyromaniac feral child.
Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss provide some laughs, but the film’s focus is trained squarely on the Wilsons. A sequence set in the Tyler’s luxurious house is one of the film’s more intense and viscerally scary moments.
Us is a film that is deliberately frustrating in parts, with somewhat-obtuse symbolism scattered about. However, even without subjecting the movie to rigorous meta-analysis, it works as a horror film and it’s clear that it’s meticulously crafted. Peele is a filmmaker with something to say and enough style to say it engagingly, so we’re looking forward to his upcoming Candyman reboot and whatever else he has up his sleeve.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars