Earlier this year, Jordan Peele released his third thriller, Nope, a completely unique amalgam of sci-fi, horror, and creature feature. Don’t be surprised if you hear more about Nope this coming award season – it’s that good! In the meantime, if you’re in the Halloween spirit and have a hankering for something spooky, look no further than Jordan Peel’s 2019 sophomore feature, Us. Not only does Us fit the bill for a Halloween treat, it has something going for it that Nope, and Peele’s first feature, Get Out, does not; it was filmed in Santa Cruz.
Us begins with a mysterious prologue that takes place in 1986 in which a young girl is severely traumatized after running into a creepy carbon copy of herself at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. That eerie incident transitions to the present day and introduces a family traveling on vacation to 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 and reacts anxiously. It turns out it was she who saw her doppelgänger several decades earlier, and she’s afraid her scary 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, Peele crafts a story that sucks us into a waking nightmare, 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 sharp 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 as much for our benefit as the hapless victim’s. Some of the details might not add up under close scrutiny, but that hardly matters. Besides, the exposition begins with, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl…” signaling to the viewer that Us is a fable that doesn’t need to make total logical sense. Unfortunately, the convoluted explanation for all the strange goings-on does leave the door open for some justifiable criticism. It could be argued that Jordan Peele’s allegorical ambitions fall short of his grasp, and that the narrative struggles and occasionally stumbles under the weight of its own mythology. But what an incredible mythology it is. And unlike most horror films, Us has more to offer than just cheap jump-scares. By using frightening doppelgängers as metaphorical reflections of our darker sides, Us comes to the unsettling conclusion that it is ourselves we need to fear.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.