Jordan Peele made waves with his 2017 directorial debut Get Out, a macabre, modern take on America’s relationship with race that not only had huge box office success but earned him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Not without its flaws, Get Out is still a tough act to follow. Us, despite its abstruse concept, finds Peele extending his twisted breadth and setting a seriously high benchmark for his peers.
During a summer lake house vacation, we find the Wilson family on a day-break to the beach resort in Santa Cruz. It was at this very beach back in 1986 that the family matriarch, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), had a traumatic experience that she has carried into adult life. Anxious that there is an ever-looming dark cloud constantly bearing down, with a sense that precise coincidences are aligning around her, Adelaide’s worst fears come to the fore when a family arrives on their driveway that look exactly like them.
With echoes of the home invasion sub-genre, most notably the French thrillers À l'intérieur and Ils, Peele ramps up the tension with a confrontation that is both left-field and unnerving. Rather than settling to play the remainder of Us out as a cat and mouse game à la Michael Haneke's Funny Games, it more than resembles an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, which is apt as Peele is currently executively producing the new series. Where Us could have played it safe it takes us to unexpected places both subliminally and thematically. Peele’s script (complimented by his directing) is loaded with references that hint – in some cases outright scream – at a grand reveal that you will almost certainly miss on first viewing and there are apparently throwaway comments that become more relevant the further down the rabbit-hole you go. Every scene is purposely crafted and infused with hidden details that will warrant repeat viewings.
There is a lot to take in, especially when you throw into the mix a family of psychotic doppelgängers that seem hell-bent on making our protagonists lives a misery, but it helps that Peele has written a family into his story that you can actually relate to and therefore care about. Along with Adelaide you have Winston Duke’s patriarch Gabe, who brings a welcome dose of comic relief to the proceedings that never once feels out of place. Their two children Zora and Jason (played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex respectively) also bring a natural and endearing quality to their performances that add to the family dynamics. They also all get to gleefully contradict these character traits by playing their evil counterparts, and if anyone shines in this department it’s Lupita Nyong'o. On one hand you have the introverted and nurturing Adelaide, and at the other end of the spectrum (maybe an entirely new spectrum) you have the jittery, insect-like Red all raspy voiced and wide-eyed who would sooner drive a pair of gold scissors into you than hug you. It’s an extremely nuanced pair of performances that is testament to her superb acting abilities.
As we learned with Get Out Peele is no stranger to subtext and Us is no exception. It almost acts like a cathartic experience on the Instagram generation and surprisingly, despite the malevolence on display, has a positive message on unification and being at peace with one’s self. On a bigger scale it’s ultimately about class and cultural inequality and striving to achieve the American Dream, even if that means demeaning your fellow human being. It may not be as tightly wrapped as Get Out and the ending will be a hard pill to swallow for some, but Us is a highly ambitious piece of work that will get people talking – it's certainly hitting the social commentary of today firmly on its head. This is only Peele’s second film and I truly believe that we are in the presence of one of the genre’s greats – I for one cannot wait to see what he conjures up next.