Jordan Peele exploded onto our cinematic landscape with 2017’s Get Out, a horror/thriller hybrid that was thick with complicated racial themes and iconography. It was a weird, wild allegorical ride that was instantly and deservingly lauded as a game changer. For a freshman directorial effort, it was astonishing. But it was also, in the grander cinematic landscape, not a complicated film. Deep and intense and thought-provoking? Yes. And while there was a great deal of metaphor to be mined out of its images, at the end of the day, the larger metaphor was not one you had to work for.
Us, Peele’s sophomore effort, is different. It is work: a brutal, tense, emotionally exhausting film that gives you a great deal to think about, even though you’re so busy gasping for breath you’ll barely have the time. I’m not going to give you a single ounce of plot, because like Get Out, it is worth seeing completely fresh. Suffice it to say that the film is so much more than what you’ve seen in the trailers. Yes, the story involves a family - consisting of Winston Duke and Lupita Nyong’o and their children, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex - on vacation having their lives upended by a home invasion by what appear to be their duplicates. And yes, those duplicates are dark, twisted, broken versions of themselves with a sinister agenda, who hunt them across the film’s landscape. But there’s so much more at play, and from the very opening frames the film works to keep the audience not just guessing, but utterly baffled.
Peele’s writing and directing are familiar in many ways, and it’s not hard to recognize this as from “the Get Out guy.” But it’s also a radical departure from his first film, as if now that he’s established, he’s free to really get his hands dirty, and that may be what makes Us so appealing. It lacks the obvious crowd appeal of its predecessor - it’s a darker, scarier, harsher film that is a good deal more uncomfortable. But Peele manipulates his audience masterfully, breaking moments of unbearable tension with brilliantly curated comic relief that lasts only a second, just enough to pop the balloon before throwing another at you. The film’s color contrast is its own story, straying from sunny beaches to tension-laden darkness to an almost clinically bright, neon-lit nightmare that’s far scarier than it should probably be. Every inch of every frame is meticulously, almost obsessively designed, and it’s a film that will once again likely require multiple viewings to find every vividly imagined bit of imagery.
Us is also a master class in acting from everyone involved. Nyong’o, already established as one of Hollywood’s burning hot stars, is astonishingly good here, flipping between her two personas so radically that it seems almost impossible. One is an organic, natural-feeling mother figure who seems fragile at first but is quickly shown to be far more powerful. The other is a jerky, freakish horror show of a character, a hateful creature filled with seething, hissing rage and cruelty. And this would be remarkable for the film by itself, except that everyone handles their roles with near-equal deftness. Duke does terrific work here, proving that he’s far more than M’baku, and even more impressive is a pair of incredibly capable performances by the children, Wright Joseph and Alex. The cast is rounded out by their vacationing friends, played by Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, both of whom also give fantastic performances, although Moss yet again proves herself to be an underrated juggernaut of an actress.
Us is an amazing picture, and if it suffers from anything it’s that it feels maybe a tiny bit overlong, and there were what felt like three or four distinct moments when I thought the film was over, only to see that it was definitely not. On the flip side, there were even more moments when I thought “Ah, I get it now,” only to think ten minutes later “nope, I was wrong, I have no goddamn idea.” And as it slowly pieces together both its reveals and its larger message, it becomes even better. Every carefully assembled piece of its puzzle builds it up to greater heights. This is all compounded by utterly nerve-wracking pacing (complemented by a terrific soundtrack and score) that makes the audience feel like a room full of tightly-drawn bowstrings. Make no mistake: Us is an impressive achievement and you should absolutely see it, but you should also brace yourself for what often feels like a two-hour anxiety attack. I feel like I’ve sold the film short by not saying much about the plot or the themes it lays out, but you’ll be better for not knowing. Take comfort that even going in blind, you’re in for a harrowing, masterfully crafted experience, unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.