Review: Jordan Peele's 'Us' isn't super scary but will haunt your dreams
This film gets stranger as you burrow into its layers. You suspect this film will be psychoanalysed in films classes for years to come
Jordan Peele boasts one of Hollywood’s more intriguing career arcs of recent times. Just three years ago, he was starring in the utterly silly movie Keanu with a cute cat and Keegan-Michael Key, his partner from their witty TV sketch show Key and Peele.
Then he wrote and directed Get Out, a razor-sharp horror-satire that lanced American race-relations like a particularly septic boil. Winning him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, it was marvellously unexpected.
So it’s no surprise that his latest film Us arrives with the spotlight firmly trained on it. Another cleverly-constructed scary movie, it’s similarly bursting with good ideas, as Peele sets out to play with traditional horror iconography. Right away, text on the screen tells us that in America there are miles of abandoned tunnels – subway systems, service areas and mine shafts. “Many have no known purpose at all.”
If it hadn’t already been snapped up by Robert Zemeckis’ own chiller, ‘What Lies Beneath’ could well have been an apt title.
Briefly, a 1986-set prologue introduces us to young Adelaide; at a funfair with her parents, she wanders off to discover a Hall of Mirrors right on the beach. As the rain pours and lightning strikes, she goes inside. There she spies another little girl who looks exactly like her; it’s enough to scare her witless. By the time we meet her again, in the present day, she’s not been able to shake this incident from her mind. “My whole life,” she stammers, “I feel like she’s coming for me.”
Played in her adult years by 12 Years A Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, Adelaide is now married to the easy-going Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), who seems to be mostly interested in his new motorboat. She’s also mother to their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). During their annual holiday, she reluctantly returns to the beach of her childhood nightmares, as they hook up with old friends, the Tylers (Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss) and their daughters.
It’s only when they return to their summer home at night that things get really weird. Outside in the driveway stands a family, all dressed in blood-red overalls. Silent and menacing, these are the Wilsons’ doppelgängers and they’re out for vengeance. “Who are you people?” asks a frightened Gabe, shortly after his double has taken him down with a baseball bat. “We’re Americans,” croaks Adelaide’s replica, also played by Nyong’o, delivering one of Peele’s most loaded lines of dialogue.
As this unhinged lookalike explains, she is Adelaide’s “shadow” and now the process of the “untethering” must begin. That she’s clutching a pair of gold-coloured scissors only adds to the atmosphere of dread. Peele leaves us unnerved in these scenes, on edge. Like the fact that Jason’s double Pluto wears a Halloween-style mask that disguises burn marks on the lower half of his face. How did he get those? We never find out. Maybe we don’t want to know.
There’s also a dark strain of humour running through Us. At one point Gabe suggests they can push back against their attackers Home Alone style; amusingly, his kids have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. Likewise, there’s a fine sequence with a voice-activated home entertainment system starts playing N.W.A.’s F*** The Police when the owners try and call 911 emergency (and trust Peele to get his kicks out of playing one of hip-hop’s most controversial records full blast).
Performance-wise, Nyong’o leads the way, pulling out two very different turns as the vulnerable Adelaide and her unpredictable other self. There’s neat work too from Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, as the rosé-swigging trophy wife perpetually annoyed by her husband. But really the star here is Peele, who directs with swagger and style.
Crucially, he doesn’t let the final act turn into an orgy of violence, as so many horror movies become. Those aforementioned tunnels really do have a purpose after all.
Indeed, Us gets stranger as you burrow further into its layers. The opening credits show white rabbits in cages – probably the most floppy-eared mammals seen on film since The Favourite. Quite what they represent is another matter. Same goes for the doppelgängers. What are they? A reflection of mankind’s ego? A reckoning with our own greed and materialism? You suspect this film will be psychoanalysed in films classes for years to come.
With a powerful operatic score by Michal Abels, Peele never forgets that horror works best with a communion of sound and vision. There are some unforgettable images in Us, along with twisted ideas that would give David Lynch a run for his money.
Is it super-scary? Not exactly. But there’s enough here to haunt your dreams. And like Jason’s Jaws T-shirt reminds us, beaches really aren’t safe places to go.
'Us' is in UAE cinemas from Thursday March 21
Updated: March 19, 2019 10:14 AM