Us - strap in for an unsettling journey to the Twilight Zone
With Us, writer, producer and director Jordan Peele proves that he’s no one-trick pony after the success of his Oscar-winning Get Out in 2017. Where Get Out was a racially-conscious thriller, Us is less concerned about social commentary and more horror-focused, with an ample amount of comedy sprinkled throughout. The one aspect the two movies have in common - a credit to Peele’s skill as a storyteller - is that both are difficult to pin to one particular genre. If there’s anything to compare Us to, it would have to be the Twilight Zone. The only thing missing is Rod Serling’s narration before the opening credits. As his second feature film, it is accomplished and a film that will divide audiences. In the screening I was at, people laughed and screamed.
So where are we and what's going on?
Us centers on the Wilsons, a seemingly normal middle-class family of four on vacation at their summer home near the California coast. But like any good Twilight Zone episode, there’s a sense that not everything is as picturesque as the beautiful beaches and lakeside retreats might lead you to believe. Peele effectively creates this ominous tone first and foremost through strong character development, especially with Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o portrays Adelaide, the mother, who is haunted by a traumatic experience she had as a young girl while on a similar vacation with her mom and dad. The use of flashbacks to Adelaide’s childhood provides valuable insight into why her character seems so sad and often paranoid about the world around her. Nyong’o embodies the trauma of her character well, as she teeters on the edge of sanity with every new frightening development.
When Adelaide's worst fears come true, and a terrifying doppelganger family shows up on their driveway wearing red jumpsuits and carrying large gold scissors, the story gets absolutely bonkers… in a good way. And while there are plenty of scares and creepy events happening all around, Peele balances the shock and awe with some hilarious moments courtesy of the dad, Gabe (Winston Duke). Gabe’s happy-go-lucky personality is the perfect counterpoint to Adelaide’s sombre demeanor and even when the Wilsons’ doppelgangers are terrorizing them, he finds time to crack a joke or make a hilarious observation about the crazy situation they’re all in. His joke about Home Alone is well timed and had the folks in my screening laughing out loud even though terror is at hand.
Since Us is a family affair, the two children - Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) - get their time to shine as well. It’s enjoyable to watch them go up against their respective doppelgangers, which also gives the young performers a chance to show off their acting chops. The scissor-wielding counterparts are very different in terms of their mannerisms, especially in their physicality. Jason’s double creepily moves in an animalistic fashion, whereas Zora’s just smiles wickedly and runs really, really fast. Peele wisely manages the time spent with the kids so they don’t feel like an afterthought.
In a film where scissors, bats, and fireplace pokers are used as weapons, there’s bound to be some blood splatter but Peele doesn’t unleash all of the gore at once, and opts for a slow-build of violence that gets more graphic over time. Peele’s technique adds suspense and tension because you’re never quite sure when the gross-out moments are about to occur. Sometimes he pulls the camera back, leaving the slicing and dicing sounds as our only indicator as to what might be happening, while during other instances, Peele keeps the camera focused on the mayhem so you can squirm in your seat.
Us is a very, very strange film. But that’s OK because it wouldn’t be a Jordan Peele film if there wasn’t a little risk involved. Peele has proven that he’s not a one-hit-wonder with this truly terrifying, poignant look at one American family that goes through hell at the hands of maniacal doppelgangers. The strangeness of the narrative stays grounded with excellent character development, especially with Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide who is truly in top form.
Peele has created another marvelous new horror story akin to a modern-day Twilight Zone. Keep that in mind and all will be well. Enjoy.