Jordan Peele was already a well-known comedian by the time he made his commercially and critically acclaimed directorial debut, Get Out. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best director and best picture while winning best original screenplay. Peele’s second film as a writer, director, and producer, Us, begs the question… does it live it up the expectations set by such an auspicious debut?
The Wilson family, consisting of married couple Gabe (Winston Duke) and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), go to Adelaide’s childhood home for summer vacation. Once settled in the Wilsons head to Santa Cruz beach to see the Tylers (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss), his family friends. Unbeknownst to her family, this is the same location where Adelaide had a traumatic experience at a young age when she wandered off from her parents and got caught in a hall of mirrors. Adelaide swears she saw an exact double of herself, and she insists it was not just a creepy reflection.
Later on that night, after an odd power outage at the house, the Wilsons notice a family of four standing in their driveway. Gabe goes out and asks them politely to leave, as these unknown persons are creeping out his family. The strangers, all of whom clad in red jumpsuits, break into the house instead of leaving. Upon seeing them up close, it dawns on the Wilsons that these are them. Mind you, not exact duplicates but more like their primal ids come to life. These skewed reflections of the Wilsons go about taunting, tormenting, and torturing their counterparts.
I feel that to say anything else about the plot would spoil it. Let’s start things off with the negative, as there are a handful of issues present in Us. The biggest problem is the random way the score would undercut itself. When driving to Santa Cruz beach, the family is stopped on the road as someone is being lifted into an ambulance. This is intercut with flashes from Adelaide’s traumatic time at this place, and the score is a lovely instrumental piece accompanied by a chorus of voices. The scene comes to a natural end, but the music doesn’t fade away so much as get interrupted by a much more up-tempo song. The shift is jarring and awkward and kills the intensity of the previous scene and the proceeding sequence, which is more jovial in nature, takes a few moments to finds its rhythm again.
“Unbeknownst to her family, this is the same location where Adelaide had a traumatic experience at a young age…”
The other issue is much more minor, as I don’t believe it will affect everyone. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that the reveal of what happened to Adelaide all those years ago is predictable. I correctly guessed it from just a few minutes after the ‘Red’ family’s introduction. As such, there some scenes where Us seemed to stall, as I was waiting for it. Mind you, in terms of directing, acting, and all that, the reveal is perfectly executed. It is just a bit disappointing that the mystery was easy to figure out.
That is not to imply this is a poorly written movie though, as it is not. While the mystery surrounding the matriarch is easy, the ultimate plan of the ‘Reds’ is astounding. It is hard hitting just as much for its startling originality as it is for its critique of American society’s views of the other. The immigrants are coming to sell drugs and steal jobs! The person that voted for a different political party than you must hate their country! Peele is interested in reserving that cultural dialogue and looking inward. Are we so afraid of the so-called others because we are fearful of our true selves?
Much like in Get Out, Peele does not offer any easy answers, as he refuses to spoon-feed his audience. This intelligent approach extends to the directing style as well. The editing is flawless, going from present day horror to Adelaide’s traumatic experience seamlessly without sacrificing intensity or scares. Even better than that though is the ease with which Peele balances tone. Early scenes involving the Wilsons day to day interactions with each other are uproarious and fun. Given the affability of these characters, once the horror comes calling, there still moments of comedy but they never break the tension.
“…takes that energy and turns it into a creepy, physical manifestation as his other self…”
Brilliantly, the Reds non-reaction to absurd moments, or their unwitting creation of such, makes things even creepier. This is in part because this other family is not without their empathetic moments. After a particular person is killed, their Red doppelganger tries on lip gloss and smiles at how elegant she thinks it makes her appear. This reaction causes the audience to consider her wants and needs, even though she is a cold-blooded murderer.
None of this would be possible if it were not for the stellar cast. Winston Duke busts out his comedic chops as the always trying too hard Gabe, and he nails it perfectly. His enthusiasm over a crappy boat he got for cheap, and his family’s hatred of it is hilarious. As the other, Duke’s physical size becomes a great asset. Without any dialogue, he creates an intense and imposing figure. Nyong’o is perfect in her two roles. As Adelaide, her determination to live and protect her family is on full display. As the only Red that can speak, her voice is horrifyingly unnatural. Her character was a dancer in her teenage years, and this becomes integral to the plot later on. The graceful movements both of her parts display is a wonder to behold.
As the kids, Joseph and Alex equal their onscreen parents in every way. The oft distant and distracted manner Joseph responds to her family comes from a relatable place. She doesn’t dislike her family; she merely finds they get in the way of the things she wants to do. Joseph walks that fine line of bratty and sweet in the best possible way. Evan Alex’s playful demeanor is nicely showcased early on in a goofy prank where he `scares his sister. Alex takes that energy and turns it into a creepy, physical manifestation as his other self that marks one of the best turns by a child actor since The Sixth Sense.
Us is a bit predictable and contains a few jumbled auditory edits. However, these small missteps are in the service of an ambitious story that has a lot to say about what divides us as humans and how those divisions hurt everyone. Peele’s direction contains a tight grasp on horror and comedy, balancing both perfectly. His game cast shines brightly in their dual roles, and the ending makes the whole endeavor well worth your time.
Us (2019) Directed by Jordan Peele. Written by Jordan Peele. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker. Us premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
9 out of 10 Gummi Bears