Us is the story of the Wilson family: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), elder daughter Zora (Shahdi Wright Joseph), and younger son Jason (Evan Alex). The family has decided, as they have in years past, to visit their beach house for the summer. These excursions are always a point of stress for Adelaide given a traumatic experience she had during a similar vacation when she was very young. On their first night, the Wilsons discovers their own doppelgangers standing creepily in their driveway. As the look-a-likes begin to force their way in, Adelaide, Gabe, Zora, and Jason struggle to figure out who these people are and what they desire.
What works in Us are the performances, the suspense, and the expert weaving together of the two. Director Jordan Peele (Get Out) serves once again as both writer and director and proves he is squarely on the road to auteur, and perhaps the creation of his own signature genre: provocative social commentary suspense. From his cast, Peele squeezes heart, humor, and genuine terror as individuals with strengths and weaknesses. Nyong’o, in particular, shines in her dual roles as the matriarch forced to go extreme lengths to protect her loved ones, and also her vile other self whose eyes burn with unpredictable rage. It’s a performance that clearly proves the actor’s range and one that will likely haunt audiences long after.
Peele uses relatability to ground his thrills in Us and it works consistently and effectively. Framing is Peele’s secret weapon as he uses precise angles to drive suspense rather than jump-scares, shaky camera tracking, or extreme close-ups. Just the right point-of-view gives watchers just a smidge more information about the dangers lurking, leading to several moments of uncontrollable screaming at the screen, warning fruitlessly for the protagonists to “run!” Peele recognizes that anticipation can be scarier than shock. To this point, Us is more thriller than horror, and while there is plenty of violence, the gore is kept reasonably in check.
Peele also proves a master of cadence using his characters to provide moments of levity through honest reflection and exasperation. Here is where Duke (Black Panther) receives acclaim as the naïve dad who wants to act tough but is so filled to the brim with loveable optimism that it betrays him in comedic ways. These beats keep Us moving along at a good pace, allowing respite between the scares.
While Us is tonally sharp and full of intriguing characters, Peele’s metaphors may overburden the experience. Unraveling the mystery in Us is part of the joy, but Peele has no intention of being overt about his messaging and symbolism. This almost certainly will leave some audiences reaching the credits with bewilderment or dissatisfaction. Using Get Out as a barometer, it’s likely that Peele has a codex for Us which deciphers all of his meticulous choices. However, this raises its own metaphorical question grounded in Peele’s former genre: if a comedian has to explain the joke, is it still funny?
Us is a movie that is destined to arouse conversation—debates about the scariest moment of the film, favorite character, or just what exactly the filmmaker was trying to say about modern day society. Us is likely to stick with watchers long after the lights go up for a variety of reasons and because this was clearly Peele’s intention, one must deem the movie a true success.