Synopsis – A family’s serenity turns to chaos when a group of doppelgängers begins to terrorize them.
My Take – With the release of his directorial debut, Get Out, back in 2017, Jordan Peele proved that he is a unique kind of a filmmaker. The film was not just a major critical and box-office hit, but also made a huge mark by being culturally impactful with its social satire, something rarely seen in the horror genre. With his production company currently involved in developing various projects (Twilight Zone, Candyman), its understatement to state that Peele has become one of Hollywood’s most notable figures. As a result his sophomore directorial effort, comes with great fanfare, and it thankfully it doesn’t disappoint.
Here, once again, he offers a thought-provoking, deeply layered, and an incredibly suspenseful narrative, that not only leaves our jaws dropped and but is also going to keep our minds confused for quite some years. Unlike others in the genre, this one is a complex, mind bending experience that tests the limitations of what a horror film can be. What’s great about the film is how differently people will interpret what they’ve witnessed.
While I do think that his first film is more consistent and better structured, this one succeeds by being more intricate and add to the mix its brilliant cast, the tonally well-balanced hilarious comedy and excitingly scary action sequences, we have here an incredible richly layered horror film.
The story follows Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), who with her upper-middle class family consisting of her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), her sullen teenage daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her quiet introvert younger son, Jason (Evan Alex), arrives at Santa Cruz to enjoy a peaceful seaside vacation, with their wealthier friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss). But soon after arriving at their beach house, Adelaide gets increasingly agitated, as their breezy jaunt unlocks a deep trauma inside Adelaide, and their surface peace quickly turns to terror when a group of red jumpsuit-wearing doppelgangers known as The Tethered shows up to wreak havoc. What follows is essentially a supersized home invasion set-up, as The Tethered start to terrorize their other selves all across the country.
In his sophomore effort, director Peele has made another socially-conscious horror film out of this nagging, subconscious feeling of self-doubt and unease. The film is an absolute master class is crafting an interesting and innovative suspense driven horror film. The plot goes in multiple directions, but was still grounded in suspense and classical elements of horror. I genuinely was interested in the characters and the plots progression throughout the entire film.
Here, director Peele, who also wrote the script, synthesizes various horror influences, from Twilight Zone peculiarity and The Shining style tension and dread to home invasion terror and family-vacation-gone-wrong tropes. He throws it all in a blender and the result is twisted, stylized genre excursion, heavy on the symbolism, dripping with unnerving imagery, and fraught with scares, violence, and gore.
You can watch this film and enjoy the hell out of it as a kinetic genre ride. But it’s also the kind of film full of small, intricate details, where every piece carries intention, and repeat viewings will only offer more and more depth, layers, and intrigue on multiple levels. And while director Peele fills the film with unsettling images of masks, vicious smiles, and unique, disconcerting camera angles, he also infuses tranquil, ordinary moments with ominous disquiet and unease, all the while raking it up with some genuinely funny dark humor moments.
The film’s screenplay is thought-provoking and suspenseful, filled with brilliant character development, and surprisingly well-filmed action scenes. I guess as a director Peele knows how to do anything efficiently. The chasing scenes are riveting, and the fights are bloody awesome. In addition to this, most of the action occurs at night which requires the director to know what he’s doing, so the audience is able to follow what’s happening. I never, not once, lost my place during an action sequence. I knew who everyone was, where were they at, and what were they doing. A major reason you should watch this film is to see a family that is believable and lovable deal with a situation that is beyond anything they thought possible.
Having a Black family as the stand-in for all-American suburban affluence already subverts some tired genre tropes, but director Peele doesn’t stop there, for example while Gabe puts on a showy display of macho fierceness that ends in utter failure, the young daughter, Zora becomes the unlikely family savior most of the time, wielding a golf club with the fury at anything that comes in the harm’s way. Here, you will invest in their struggle in a way that audiences rarely do with the subjects of horror films. These are not cardboard characters, doomed to die for our entertainment. They are people you will care about, and you’ll be truly afraid for what happens to them.
When you reach the climactic confrontation (set to a truly iconic musical score) you will be gripping your seat and unable to blink. As a storyteller, Peele also does a masterful job doling out doses of information about these uncanny doppelgangers over the course of the film, spoonful by bloody spoonful. He trusts his audience to do much of the work in unraveling the mystery themselves. Here, the doubles hold a dark mirror up to the Wilsons. It’s a story offering an off-kilter kink to the norm.
At the same time, this feral, wild glimpse at a strange underworld highlights the darkness and weirdness of daily life, of the things that we take for granted as normal and natural, but upon closer examination, are anything but. Now I really liked this one, but it did have a few points that hold it back as a film.
The film’s greatest weakness is that it is both full of huge, complex ideas worthy of analysis, but also a plot that falls apart if you think about them too much. The class allegory that posits that the privileged few never gives a second thought to those linked to them — by virtue of their humanity if nothing else, until they’re being physically threatened is one that is worth careful consideration.
But aside from Red, who communicates with Adelaide in a wheezy flap of a voice only rarely used, these doppelgangers feel more like zombies than our worst selves reflected back, and the big finale relies on a wordy information dump that’s more telling than showing. It’s messy, and a little clunky, but more than that, having loose ends tied up so neatly cheapens the message. Also while I understand that the story has a lot to take in once explained, I believe director Peele does so in a slightly too fast monologue that I think some people won’t quite enjoy. For me, I would have loved total ambiguity. If they didn’t explain a thing, I would have been ecstatic, but I understand the need to do it.
My other gripe with the film is the other family, portrayed mainly by the awesome Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Thinking about them and their importance to the story, I find that either they could have been better utilized or they shouldn’t even exist. It’s the middle ground between these two options that bothers me a little since it feels like these two remarkable actors, especially Moss, were left aside too much. They are indeed relevant to elevate the story as a whole, but I still wish they were explored a bit better.
However the acting in the film is great, with Lupita Nyong’o as the clear standout–playing both a good-natured yet paranoid mother and her doppelganger. This is her most impressive and meaty performance since she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. Her turn as Red is the more technically impressive — that voice alone. It was fun seeing her play two completely different roles, but throw herself at both performances. The doppelganger concept of the film could have easily come across as a cheap plot device if not for such strong performances.
Winston Duke also gives a charismatic performance as the father and acts as the primary source of comedy throughout the film. The young actors, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are also great to watch. Though, Elisabeth Moss has only brief screen time, but is transfixing as her undead-looking Tethered self enjoys a moment of pure self-indulgent pleasure applying lip gloss, a maniacal smile spreading across her scarred cheeks. Tim Heidecker also exemplary.
In smaller roles, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali Sheldon, Madison Curry and Noelle Sheldon are also good. On the whole, ‘Us’ is a tense, creative and terror-filled horror thriller that is all around well-directed and acted.
Directed – Jordan Peele
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes