Two years ago, Jordan Peele wrote and directed his first film, the instant horror classic, Get Out. It was a huge success both commercially and critically, and it went on to earn four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Peele walked home with a Best Screenplay Oscar.
His follow-up, Us, doesn’t quite live up to the high expectations created by Get Out, but Peele’s voice is still fresh and strong, and the result, as with his first film, is a true horror original.
Us begins with a mysterious prologue that takes place in 1986 in which a young girl is severely traumatized after running into her doppelgänger at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. That scary incident quickly paves way to the present day, introducing a family traveling to – you guessed it! – Santa Cruz. When the husband, played by Winston Duke, suggests an outing to the Beach/Boardwalk, his wife, played by the Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong’o, pushes back, reacting anxiously. It turns out it was she who saw her doppelgänger several decades earlier, and she’s afraid her creepy double is still out there. Reassured by her incredulous husband who promises to protect her, they head to the main beach to enjoy a day in the sun. As you might imagine, things get dark rather quickly.
Like all good thrillers, Us depends on its twists and turns, so revealing much more of the plot would completely undermine its impact. Suffice to say, the story gets increasingly unnerving, and along the way, it touches on such weighty themes such as economic disparity, nature vs. nurture and our propensity for self-destruction.
Us also showcases Peele’s talent for stealing from the greats to create something new and original. In a direct nod to Spielberg’s Jaws, and foreshadowed by a character wearing the movie’s T-shirt, there’s a scene at a lake where a threat is hiding just below the surface. Jumpsuit-wearing stalkers wielding pointy weapons are lifted right out of John Carpenter’s proto-slasher, Halloween. And a frightening home invasion is reminiscent of one of Peele’s all-time favorite films, George Romero’s masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead.
The how and why of the story is revealed in the grand tradition of James Bond villains when one of the antagonists spells things out for our benefit as much as for the would-be victim’s. But don’t think too hard on it because it makes about as much sense as a flying elephant. In fact, the exposition begins with, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl…” signaling to the viewer that Us is a fable more concerned with using allegory as a tool for commentary as opposed to making logical sense.
For that reason, Us is extremely ambitious, arguably even too ambitious. The narrative struggles and occasionally stumbles under the weight of its own mythology. Nonetheless, unlike most horror films, Us has more on its mind than just cheap jump-scares. By using murderous doppelgängers as metaphorical reflections of humanity, Us comes to the unsettling conclusion that it is ourselves we need to fear.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski