Jordan Peele has done it again. In 2017, the comedian turned filmmaker with a blisteringly funny and soul-rattlingly scary directorial debut Get Out. The horror film was universally praised, instantly iconic, and went on to win Peele an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. So, anticipation has been through the roof for his follow-up, Us. As SXSW’s Opening Night film, Us drew crowds that wrapped around the city blocks of downtown Austin. People lined up for 2 to 6 hours just in the hopes they’d get to be in the room for its world premiere. After over two hours in line, this critic barely made the cut. I was number 21 of the last 75 people who would gain entrance. As soon as I walked through the doors of the Paramount, the excitement in the air was electric. The whole theater throbbed with anticipation. When Peele took to the stage to introduce the film, the audience erupted in cheers and applause. Over the next two hours, we would gasp, scream, laugh, and pulse together with tension as Us barreled into a mind-bending third act. Which is to say, it was a huge hit with us.
Starring Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o and her Black Panther co-star Winston Duke, this astoundingly original horror-thriller follows the Wilson family on a weekend away at their summer home. It should be a time of bonding, board games, and beach trips. But there’s something strange in the air. Mother of two Adelaide (Nyong’o) is anxious. Her mind keeps drifting back to a summer years ago on this same Santa Cruz beach, where she saw something terrible that changed her life forever. Still shook by the trauma, she’s seen as paranoid when she begs her husband Gabe (Duke) to take their family away from this place. But it’s too late. Someone is in their driveway.
The broad strokes: the Wilsons’ cozy summer home is invaded by devilish doppelgangers, who look like the funhouse mirror version of them, similar but sinister. One by one, each will have to face down their heinous double. But this battle quickly spills out of their house, spreading carnage and blood. If you’re intrigued, don’t watch the trailers. Don’t look at posters. Just go, because Peele is bringing a bold brand of horror into theaters that won’t only scare you senseless, but will make you think.
Like Get Out, Us is a gift to horror fans. Peele has an incisive imagination, which creates striking imagery that is not only startling in theaters but haunting hours after. The imagery of the Sunken Place followed us home, and nested in our nightmares. It also became a short hand in discussing social politics in America. Peele explores similar themes of othering dehumanization in Us. And this time, he gives us blood-red jump suits and large, gold scissors. They are instantly unsettling, an unspoken threat with a crisp slicing sound-effect that sends shivers down spines. The film is richly layered with sly visual cues, symbolism, and horror-related Easter Eggs. You might look for clues to unravel the mystery of these murderous doppelgangers. You might seek the meaning of the scissors or the lone leather glove on this damned family’s right hands. You might geek out over every nod to a horror greats, from a boy’s Jaws t-shirt to an enthralling homage to Black Swan. But there’s too much to take in all at once. Already, I’m aching to see Us again and allow my eyes to feast on all the things I missed the first time through.
You can feel Peele’s love of the genre. There’s a ghoulish glee in how he ramps up tension, then slices through with a scare that’ll have you jump in your seat or let out a panicked yowl. Then, he punctures the tension with a stab of humor, letting us relax ever so slightly, lulling us into a false sense of safety before unfurling another ferocious fright. He is a conductor, coolly directing the reactions of the audience, delighting us one moment, then horrifying us the next. And while I keep saying, “like Get Out,” Peele isn’t playing it safe. Yes, there’s a blend of humor, politics, and horror. But Us isn’t as accessible as Get Out. Its story is stranger, more savage, the political allegory less obvious. When Red, Adelaide’s menacing double, declares, “We are Americans,” there’s no doubt Peele is looking to get under our skin. But what that line means may read very differently person to person. And that’s part of what makes Us so deeply exciting. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Night of the Living Dead, it is a terrifying film about the horror of American life. But what that means is a matter of interpretation that can and likely will be passionately debated for decades.
Peele is the mastermind of Us, but Nyong’o is its pounding heart. The ensemble as a whole is phenomenal, each having to play both the menaced and the menacing. Winston Duke gives adorable dorky-dad vibes as Gabe, then transforms into a hulking, roaring shadow of this family man. Shahadi Wright Joseph warps from a slouchy, eye-rolling teen to a monstrous girl with a unsettlingly sharp smile and a physicality so crisp it’s cutting. Young Evan Alex seamlessly switches from a playful scamp who loves magic tricks to a crawling creature, who can unnerve with the abrupt cock of his masked head or a slobbery growl. But Nyong’o takes it to the next level. As Adelaide, she is a trembling trauma victim, doting mother, and warm-hearted wife. As Red, her beguiling facial features twist to the atrocious. Her smile cracks too wide, as if it’s being violently wretched from an unseen and malevolent force. Her physicality becomes theatrical, the tapping of her fingers along her jaw reminiscence of spider’s legs clattering along a table. Then there’s her voice. It cracks and squawks as if she’s gone permanently hoarse from a lifetime of rib-rattling screams. Red’s every word is horrifying and captivating. Nyong’o goes for the jugular with a dual performance that stands out in an already illustrious career. It is a performance that will indeed be a part of horror history, and may give her her second run at Oscar.
All in all, I am in awe of Us. Peele continues to push the boundaries of the horror genre, while displaying a deep love of its forms. He’s a showman and madman, bringing together savage spectacle and blistering satire with ferocious fervor. And instead of the much-feared sophomore slump, he delivers a second effort that gives us plenty to fear, marvel, and ponder.
Us made its World Premiere at the SXSW film festival. It will open in theaters March 22.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com