Jordan Peele might be the most interesting filmmaker working in horror today – or at least the one using horror to do the most interesting things.
Get Out was not only a smash hit, but has arguably been responsible for the critical rehabilitation of the horror genre; looked down on for decades as the province of jump scares and slasher flicks. Peele’s clear interest in delving into contemporary social issues – in race, and class, and otherness – have set him apart as a “serious filmmaker”; or at least one The Academy could feel comfortable in acknowledging.
With Us, Peele has created a perfect companion piece that nevertheless feels totally distinct from his feature debut.
In his 2017 film, it was Chris (a rightly Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya), as the single black guest at the New York estate of his girlfriend’s parents, who was identifiably the outsider. In Us, the rural enclave is the summer beach home of the Wilsons: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason (Evan Alex).
Years ago, Adelaide wandered off from her family during a trip to the funfair in nearby Santa Cruz. Inside the hall of mirrors, she saw something that has followed her ever since. Tonight is when the full consequences of that long-ago encounter will finally become apparent when a mysterious family appear in the Wilson’s driveway and they find themselves face to face with… themselves.
If Get Out could be described, in classic Hollywood pitch terms, as Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? meets The Stepford Wives, then Us is The Strangers meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The doppelgangers with whom the Wilsons are confronted are twisted, funhouse mirror versions of themselves: the schlubby, upbeat Gabe finds himself going to head with Abraham, a downcast, inarticulate brute; Zora’s counterpart, Umbrae, has a manic grin and a kitchen knife, but, terrifyingly, shares an interest in running; the alternate Jason, Pluto, is intent, curious, almost dog-like, and bearing the scars of an unknown incident.
It’s Adelaide’s counterpart, though – the gleeful, mournful, starey, scary Red – who may be the most dangerous; and the most revealing.
As well as allowing for a masterclass in multiplicity, and indeed duplicity, from Nyong’o, the Tethered – as they come to be known – also reflects a key anxiety in contemporary American society: that of the shadow self, the underclass, the unintended consequence, surging up to drag us down.
Issues of race are still present – by way of comparison, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker play family friends Kitty and Josh, an insufferable couple whose shared interests are limited to bickering and alcoholism – but Us is arguably a more layered, ambitious affair than its predecessor; tunnelling deep into the American subconsciousness in search of psychosis.
Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography draws out light and texture, from the polished glint of the golden scissors the Tethered wield to the oily sheen of water at night. As in Jaws, a clear visual reference, Us is all about surfaces and what lies beneath them.
The film’s score, composed by Michael Abels, not only makes memorably subversive use of pop tracks – like the haunting refrain of Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” – but also deploys choral, fairytale touches, as in the opening sequence of Get Out with “Run Rabbit Run”, redolent of something ancient and ethereal being unharnessed, unleashed.
While, to my mind, more uncanny than outright terrifying, Us confirms, if there were any doubt, that Peele is a perfect fit for the upcoming Twilight Zone revival. His understanding of the zeitgeist and puppet-master manipulation of it, seizing on strands of the strange and unsettling in everyday life, makes him the ideal candidate to step into Rod Sterling’s shoes1 – chain-smoking TBC.
Let’s hope we don’t lose him amid the tunnels and the mirrors, the smashed windows and the doors that open on to nowhere and into nothing.