With the release of Get Out, Jordan Peele established himself to be one of the best new voices for horror and I was excited for what he was going to do next, with this excitement growing once I saw the trailer for Us. There was this sense of dread and creepiness to the trailers for Us that showed the horror chops Peele has, and the final film confirms that. However, that also makes Us a difficult film to review. This is mainly because a lot of the film’s power comes through subtext, so any kind of review will have to give some stuff away, so consider this a spoiler warning and I urge anyone who’s thinking of going to see this to go in knowing as little as possible.
The film follows the Wilson family (Adelaide, Gabe, Zora and Jason) on holiday near Santa Cruz. After a day at the beach, which triggers some unpleasant memories for Adelaide, when they return home they get attacked by people who are identical to them, with the rest of the film being the efforts of the Wilson’s to escape from their doubles, or The Tethered as they are called in the film. I know that’s a bare bones, incredibly simplified explanation of the plot of the film, but that’s really all I’m willing to give away. Whilst on the surface the film is more straightforward horror than Get Out, there are a lot of details about class/race subjugation, cooperation and government control of the population that are in the subtext of the film. Revealing exactly how this works would give away the game, so I won’t say any more. I will say though that there are some elements which did fly over my head due to my prior cultural knowledge. For example, there are biblical references I didn’t understand since I don’t know the Bible, and there are references to the Hands Across America event, which I only know through its use in a joke in The Simpsons. I also know that there will be a lot more subtextual elements that I will understand following a second viewing of the film. It also helps the film that Peele is able to effectively balance the tension and dread that pervades most of the film with a sense of dark comedy, with this sense of humour helping to build up the character relationships.
The film is also aided by excellent performances, although again to go into detail about them would spoil the film. Lupita Nyong’o is incredible, giving what may be her best performance. As Adelaide, there’s this strength that she brings to the character, knowing that she’s terrified by what’s happening to her but with a love for her family that comes through, and effectively selling someone who is clearly suffering from the after effects of trauma. As the Tethered version of herself, Red, there’s this creepiness just in the way she moves her eyes and hands that gets under your skin with the voice she uses having this powerful, horrifying effect. I don’t want to say more to avoid spoiling the ending, but this is an incredible performance from Nyong’o. Winston Duke is more of the comic relief in the film, playing the embarrassing dad effectively, helped by strong chemistry he has with Nyong’o, and showing a sense of insecurity in his character compared to more affluent friends. The Tethered version of him though is just a brutal character, having this intimidating air whenever he’s on screen through changes in body language alone. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as Zora and Jason meanwhile effectively show the sibling rivalry side of their characters and their resourcefulness when attacked by the Tethered, whilst as their Tethered selves, Joseph does great work showing a creepy side just through the smile she has, whilst Alex brings a strong animalistic quality to his performance, helping to build a sense of danger. There is also great work done by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, with very subtle cues in their relationship spelling out their entire history although, again, to say more would spoil the film.
On a technical level, the film is very impressive. Peele and DP Mike Gioulakis do a great job at building up dread throughout the film, with excellent use of colour, lighting and staging to build tension, knowing when to linger on performances and the background to create a strong atmosphere. This also shows the effectiveness of Peele as a visual storyteller, with little moments that are focused on early in the film becoming vital plot points by the end. The music meanwhile adds to the foreboding atmosphere throughout the film, with the use of the choir bringing another level of creepiness to the film, whilst the use of Good Vibrations, Fuk Da Police and I’ve Got Five On, helping to add some more character to the film.
Overall, Us is an effective horror film, buoyed by incredible performances and strong subtextual themes. I know there are some themes that will have gone over my head on the first viewing, but that ends up rewarding rewatching the film, with Jordan Peele once again showing why he will become one of the names synonymous with horror films in the future.
My Rating: 4.5/5