When Get Out was released in 2017, it became a phenomenon due, in large part, to writer/director Jordan Peele’s clever take on both horror movie tropes and racial issues. The success of that film put huge expectations on whatever he decided to do next, which just so happens to be another whirl in the horror-esque zone with Us.
The film centers on Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), who experienced a trauma as a young girl that has haunted her into adulthood. She and her family – husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex) – have returned to her childhood home in California for vacation, an ill-fated trip if ever there was one.
That’s because on their first night there, they’re confronted with a group of doppelgängers, four people who look exactly like them but whose mannerisms are completely different. The violent threat they demonstrate is just the tip of the iceberg in this perplexing film that offers both surface-level thrills and an obvious attempt at deeper-level thinking.
Just like with Get Out, Us is not a straightforward horror film. There are sections containing some intense and bloody scenes, but Peele is not interested in just making a slasher movie. He uses the character of Gabe to bring in a lot more humor this time around, and he also plays with the emotions of the four main characters, subverting expectations on “natural” reactions to traumatic situations.
Peele’s vision is aided in a big way by cinematographer Mike Giolaukis and composer Michael Abels. The imagery of the film is stunning, with Peele and Giolaukis working together to produce some instantly iconic scenes. And the foreboding and highly memorable score by Abel enhances the film at every turn, especially when he uses a certain four-note sequence.
The subliminal messaging that Peele employs will likely require two or more viewings to fully understand. He trots out a multitude of references and imagery that can be both easy and difficult to unpack. An allusion to a Bible verse about God bringing a disaster to Earth is simple enough, but the central idea of doppelgängers, along with imagery of rabbits and talk of consumerism, among other things, provides no easy answers.
Thankfully, the confounding nature of the film’s symbolism does nothing to detract from the performances. Front and center is Nyong’o, who makes the most of her first starring role. She is heroic and ferocious as Adelaide, and creepy as hell as her double, Red. Duke is a lot of fun, giving a completely different look than his turn in Black Panther. And Joseph, ahead of her role as Young Nala in The Lion King, steals a lot of scenes with her dual parts.
While imperfect, Peele and his team get enough right with Us to make it a worthy follow-up to Get Out. Combining popcorn thrills with thoughtful commentary is Peele’s calling card, something that should make him a director to watch for years to come.