In 2017, comedian Jordan Peele moved behind the camera, transitioning from a skit-based basic cable show to the big screen with Get Out. Peele collected Oscar gold for his genre-based study of race relations and paranoia, setting himself up for great expectations. He landed on Us, concocting another twisty chiller, this time dialing down the social commentary for a more straightforward freak-out, or at least as straightforward as Peele ever gets.
The Twilight Zone fanatic (Peele is currently in charge of the upcoming reboot) offers a second round of weirdness and violence, with greater emphasis on chase sequences and extended exposition.
Us is undeniably effective, but only when Peele settles into a groove of macabre events. Overall, it plays much like his previous effort, with spine-chilling developments chased by tepid comedy.
Photo courtesy of Monkeypaw Productions
Us is a straightforward freak-out. Or at least as straightforward as Jordan Peele ever gets.
Hitting the road for a summer vacation, Gabe (Winston Duke) and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) are bringing their children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), to Adelaide’s childhood home in the beach community of Santa Cruz. But Adelaide remains on edge, unable to shake a memory from 1986, when she was separated from her parents and found her way into a mysterious funhouse.
Newly disturbed by the experience, Adelaide demands to leave, only to find the way out blocked by a family of doppelgängers, or “The Tethered.” Adelaide’s twin, Red (Nyong’o), organizes a systematic extermination of the vacationers, unleashing Abraham (Duke), pyromaniac Pluto (Alex), and Umbrae (Joseph), commencing a long night of survival.
Us lays the foundation for Adelaide’s unrest by taking audiences back to 1986, with the little girl and her parents trying to enjoy a night on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. While her mother visits the restroom and her father plays a game, Adelaide wanders off to the beach, entering a funhouse that contains a discovery that shakes the girl to her core.
Us reunites with Adelaide as she and her family make their way to California, putting the skittish character into contact with memories of dance ambition and her experience inside the funhouse.
The disorientation is increased when the gang meets up with pals Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), married alcoholics who only contribute to Adelaide’s anxiety about the whole trip.
Peele delivers an intriguing set-up, culminating with the reveal of doppelgängers armed with golden shears, ready to slice into their enemy.
Such antagonism powers the central mystery, with Red trying to subdue Adelaide but not kill her right away, making the mother watch as shadow figures hunt down Gabe and the children.
They’re feral creatures, possibly, and contribute to the slasher vibe, which, after introductions, is essentially a series of chase set pieces, with each family member squaring off against their evil twin. It’s exciting, with a few grisly turns and a strengthening of character confidence to butter up the suspense.
Peele oversees impressive technical achievements, finding stellar cinematography in Mike Gioulakis, who masters the lighting, and a pleasingly aggressive score by Michael Abels. Peele’s attention to detail carries over from Get Out, and when he concentrates on panicky endeavors, he scores major thrills.
But Us ultimately doesn’t hold together, at least not in a single viewing. A few questions aren’t answered by the finale, which sticks a giant exposition dump at the end, dragging the endeavor to an unsatisfying close. (Horror buffs will be well ahead of the screenplay’s mischief.) Also throttling the viewing experience is comedy. Jokes tend to let the air out of scares, replicating the Get Out formula, only goofballery and sass seem even more out of place here.
Us doesn’t have a killer finale or sustained horror, but it’s more technically adventurous than Peele’s debut, showcasing encouraging cinematic development diminished by a few iffy filmmaking habits.