Jordan Peele is the new master of horror. Owing more to pre-Comics Code Authority pulp fiction than Wes Craven, his latest feature film, Us, is an impeccable work of mood, tension, and direction that’s all the more empowered by a mesmerizing lead in Lupita Nyong’o. If only the film were more like a complete picture than a tech demo of Peele’s auteur abilities.
Us is the second movie from Peele, a personal revenge tale that doesn’t have the same critiques of America’s racist history as Get Out. While it’s hard to summarize the plot of Us without veering into spoiler territory, the film follows a seemingly ordinary family, led by Nyong’o and a delightfully dorky Winston Duke. They are on a vacation that turns dark when murderous “copies” of themselves show up on their driveway.
Although its premise is reminiscent of The Strangers or the Funny Games movies, the more Us unravels its unique and incomprehensible backstory, the more it develops its own identity. While the big twist in Us may leave many scratching their heads hours, days, and weeks later, it is firmly its own movie, not Peele’s homage to anyone else.
Unlike Get Out, Us is more polished and tonally consistent. While Get Out had pops of levity that sprouted randomly, with Us, Peele seems to know exactly when to make us scream or laugh. It’s a masterful manipulation of mood that I believe is Peele’s secret weapon as a director. Call it whiplash if you want, but his control of the mood spectrum — between fright to cathartic laughter— is the mark of an artist. Watch and listen for an Alexa knock-off device to play N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police” at precisely the wrong (and totally right) time. Peele’s a talented comedian — as he showed during Key and Peele’s sublime five-season run — and he shows a better control over humor in Us than he did in Get Out.
⬇ Very light “spoilers” are below. ⬇
While Peele is in top form with Us, the performance of Nyong’o is the real highlight. In Us, Nyong’o basically plays two characters. And though her creative choices are risky, she’s Lupita Nyong’o. It’s only March, but it’s going to be hard to top Nyong’o as a contender in next year’s Oscars.
The creative skill on display in Us is unparalleled, but it’s not perfect. There is a mystery at the heart of Us, but even when it’s laid out plainly before the audience, the convoluted world-building Peele has conjured up is more frustrating to understand than it is frightening.
The tonal consistency of Us is also much better here than in Get Out — it’s scary when it needs to be and funny when it chooses to, and it’s never distracting like Get Out was at times. Peele has created something truly bone-chilling. His penchant for pulp horror, marked by otherworldly impossibilities (Body-switching racists! Copycat mole people!) and his prestige aesthetics, are an ideal tool kit to build a movie that can actually traumatize an audience like The Exorcist or A Nightmare on Elm Street did for previous generations. It remains to be seen if Us is that movie, but Peele is most definitely that director.
The film’s “final battle” is evidence of what Peele can do: Two characters, pitted against each other in a tight space and drenched in shadow, engage in a fight that’s as graceful as ballet, raw as instinct, and haunting as hell. Composer Michael Abel really shines in the film with his piece “Pas de Deux,” and it’s the cinematic event of the year. More like this, please.
Us is Jordan Peele at the apex of his directing game, but he’s still growing as a storyteller. Us is Peele knowing when and how to make us feel a variety of very specific things at any moment — I can almost picture Peele stroking bunnies, a visual motif in Us, in his chair all throughout shooting because he is that brilliant and evil. But art isn’t always about skill. Peele has a well-thought world in Us, maybe, but its muddled unraveling is almost its undoing.
Us is in theaters on March 22.