Director: Jordan Peele
Notable Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop
Jordan Peele, quite frankly, came in and busted modern horror wide open in a lot of ways. His debut, the Academy Award winning socio-political satire horror film Get Out, was a massive surprise hit with critics, fans, and box office. Whether one likes the film as much as I did is almost irrelevant. The film was a cultural phenomenon. This leaves a big question mark for a follow up. Although Get Out was often referred to as a ‘social thriller’ or some other bullshit genre as more discerning fans refused to stake it as a horror film, it was very clear from the outset that his sophomore effort, Us, was going to be HORROR in all caps. Still, that question mark loomed over it. Could his second effort be as provocative while maintaining that sense of respect to the horror community and history that Peele so obviously feels? In many ways, it absolutely does. Us is able to spark a thoughtful and layered commentary. The film is loaded with symbolism and detailed nuance to some of its vague narrative elements. It’s also a film that emphatically embraces the horror genre. It’s brutal, intense, and quite suspenseful to boot. If anything, Peele must have seen the that looming question mark and decidedly brushed it aside, refusing to play that game. Us is another horror cinema statement and easily sets the benchmark for the year.
Before we dig too much further into the various elements of Us, it should be noted that the film – due to its massively layered and symbolic nature – is difficult to truly review without many spoilers. As always, Blood Brothers attempts to be as spoiler free as possible in our reviews, so I apologize in advance if this review does come off as a bit vague as it plays out. Just writing about the film without stepping into meanings and further analysis is a dance with the devil itself. We will do our best.
The trailers for Us played up some of the provocative imagery and main beats that the film utilizes to hook its audience. A rather well-to-do family, lead by the film’s main star Lupita Nyong’o in an incredible display of range and subtlety for a horror film, goes out to their vacation home by the beach only to find themselves suddenly under attack by their doppelgängers one evening. A vicious home invasion scenario ensues before the film takes some wickedly effective narrative spins. Again, as mentioned above, the narrative becomes something of a layered and often nightmarish experience, but it’s one that is best left at that – an experience for the audience. The main plot remains fairly upfront to what is indicated in the trailers. There are two of each person and our protagonists much fight to survive and cling onto the lives they have.
In terms of execution, Peele once again blows away expectations with how he handles Us. He slathers the film in tense atmosphere, utilizing the great locations and imagery to tether together classic horror set pieces with impeccably paced narrative. Even when the film could stumble in that pace, where the family is split up and must face their doppelgangers on their own terms, Peele maintains a sense of where the film needs to go to get it to all fit together. There is also quite a bit of humor injected in the film, most of it used in juxtaposition with the bursts of violence and through the strong characterizations of the family and their chemistry. The use of the boat, in strange ways, is both hilarious and occasionally frightening. All of this requires a strong ensemble for the family, as mentioned this is anchored by Nyong’o, who play duel roles. Although most of the film’s core emotional center resonates with the mother’s arc and duality, the rest of the actors play off of it fantastically. The two kids, in particular, hold their own against the already established skills of the adult actors and are probably the biggest surprise of the film.
As expected, the film is littered with socio-political messages and symbols as it plays out. Us is not just another home invasion film, in fact it’s quite important for the audience to pay very close attention to the opening sequence of the VHS tapes that surround the TV set for hints to the horror film to come, but it’s a much larger film in scope. It’s as if this one family’s horror of seeing their darker and less fortunate selves spills out into the world. The reflection element is just one big part of a much larger series of themes and messages that are littered throughout the film. At one point the villain, Red (who is also played by Nyong’o,) is asked who they are. She simply hisses “We are Americans.” If that’s not just the perfect thread into what Peele is saying in this horror film about how the people on the top world and the those below are “tethered,” I’m not sure what would be.
However, unlike Get Out which plays so much of its symbolism as very intentional, Us plays it more vague and loose with how an audience interprets what is being said under the main plot. This is why there is already wildly different interpretations and debates about the film online from both fans and professional film writers. As the film plays on, it only pushes further and further into stranger territory. Explanations of events don’t really make sense, motivations seem thin, and a final key moment of information that is unleashed on the audience brings up a lot of logistical questions that make one wonder if anything we’ve been told prior fits at all. Although this can be problematic, I myself have wrestled with it a lot over the last 24 hours since seeing the film, that’s kind of the brilliance of the film. It’s not just telling you its message. It wants you to think about the message. It’s a bold move that truly resonates long after the film has ended.
Us, which will ultimately be compared to Get Out, is essentially a different beast. It uses some of the same tactics, taking a social message and embedding it into a horror film, but the experience is vastly different. This one cranks up the horror elements to the next level, punctuating the violence, humor, and drama with gore, atmosphere, and dread. He just happens to give it all a seething undertone of social commentary and then punches it through with impressively layered visuals and a depth to the narrative that will make it a film to re-watch again and again. After seeing Us, it’s hard to think there was ever that big question mark hanging over the film to begin with because the film completely obliterates it.
Written By Matt Reifschneider