In his new movie Us, Jordan Peele shows the distance between everyday ordinary folks, and the dangerous fringe-dwellers who can upend their lives, can be as slim as a mirrored pane of glass.
When the world became obsessed with his feature film debut two years ago, Peele often referred to Get Out as a work of social horror. The award-winning film mined the sordid history of America’s racism to produce a nightmarish metaphor of how systemic oppression schemes to hollow out black folks’ lives. Us demonstrates how Peele is iterating on his social horror recipes, by broadening the scope of his ambitions and fiendishly modulating the use of violence and familiarity to send shivers down our collective spines.
There’s a more resonant thrum of intimacy running through Us. It’s centred on a family vacation where parents Gabe (Winston Duke) and Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) bring their two kids to her childhood home. Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) joke with their parents and hassle each other in endearingly recognisable ways. Us’s portrayal of the Wilson family is important because, in 2019, it’s still rare to see a black family portrayed in a loving and complicated dimensionality. That love is what keeps terror at bay.
Adelaide has first-hand experience with terror, as she is haunted by a childhood trauma she can barely form words around. Her creeping dread soon gets borne out by the appearance of four people who are disturbing mirror versions of her family. All of the main cast pull double duty in impressive fashion playing the two sets of characters but Nyong’o shines brightest. She gives ferocious energy as a mother giving her all to fight against darkness and an opposite number seething with implacable covetousness.
Peele’s love of the horror genre shines in Us. Its setting, pacing and big moments recall slasher classics like Friday the 13th or Halloween, and this new movie feels more visceral overall than Get Out. Its rhythms aren’t as tightly orchestrated, though, and there’s a surprising abundance of comedy. Just as the audience laughs alongside the characters at a dad-joke or the absurdity of this terror, a jump scare or instance of sadistic bloodletting will splatter onto the threads of wry commentary about how we live our lives today. Despite all these layers, Us never lacks for momentum. It careens, lurches, and rattles like a rusty roller-coaster determined to squeeze some last screams out of its riders before getting busted down for scrap.
For much of the movie, the origins of the bogeyman family don’t matter, because knowing they exist is horror enough. They represent the unfettered reptilian ids squirming inside us all, parts of ourselves that—if not for shared norms and social contracts—would snatch away possessions and peace of mind from others. Finding out where they come from also reveals that the movie’s laughs and screams are powered by the same awful internal truth: wanting the things we think we deserve can give fuel to our worst selves. And once they have that fuel, those worst selves are more than happy to burn down others without a second thought.
Considering how influential Get Out was, audiences will undoubtedly compare Peele’s two cinematic horror outings. Where Get Out felt like laser-focused clockwork, Us is messier, more experimental and sprawling. It still delivers a gut punch of a metaphor, though, and Peele seems determined to hold viewers’ faces to the mirror to make them wince through a pain of their own making.
Us had its world premiere at SXSW 2019 this week; it comes out in wide release on March 22.