Jordan Peele is, if you'll excuse the term, hot shit at the moment. While having roots in the American comedy scene for years, he broke out to everyone's surprise as the director of horror movie Get Out, a film that became a cultural phenomenon and earned him a Best Movie nomination at that year's Academy Awards.
He struck a chord, that's for sure, and even more surprising is the fact that despite Get Out arriving in 2017, he's ready with a new horror movie, one that has already garnered extreme critical acclaim across the board. Thematically, this new movie, enigmatically entitled "Us", seems to be connected to Get Out, but sports Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o amongst its cast. In many ways, it seems like the natural next step for Peele as a director, and just like Get Out, Us is a fascinating movie through and through.
The plot centres around the Wilson family - Adelaide, Gabrial, Zora and Jason - who go on vacation to a beach house with a couple of family friends, but find themselves entangled in a deeply bizarre situation, as a group doppelgangers arrive, each looking just like one of the four family members. It immediately becomes clear that this group of odd, disfigured characters are out to hurt the Wilson family, and the Wilsons must work together if they're to survive the ordeal.
Now the plot does get a lot more bizarre than this, and each encounter with the doppelgangers furthers digs down into a rabbit hole of sheer insanity as the movie takes you through its two-hour runtime. As previously stated, it's thematically linked to Get Out in the sense that what appears to be a normal everyday scenario quickly turns into a rollercoaster of one horrifying scenario after the next. Despite an easily explainable and quite Hitchcock-esque premise, which, while not overdone by any stretch, is a familiar one, the movie makes a habit of throwing curve balls at the audience.
Also, Us is a harrowing movie, but Peele inserts a great deal of humour and even ironic distancing throughout. The sheer number of jokes is not for everyone for sure, and it might even be seen as being at odds with the overall seriousness of the events depicted on screen, but it does nail the sense of laughing and feeling dread at the same time.
Us is by no means a tale which we're overly familiar with and is quite the antithesis to The Conjuring cinematic universe, which reuses the same structure over and over again, with only mild glimpses of originality in between the almost trite structural story beats and sequences. You get the sense that Us is cleverly crafted from start to finish, and scenes rarely go the way you guess they will, and often to great effect.
The movie is character-driven, which is why the doppelganger setup is so brilliantly designed to let each actor perform to widely different versions of each character. Nyong'o is particularly captivating as the scared but strong-willed Adelaide, and her truly terrifying doppelganger, Red. While child actors were once a huge pitfall, recent years have been especially kind, and Us is a continuation of this thoroughly positive trend. Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright have several scenes of sheer brilliance, as they battle with their respective doppelgangers, Pluto and Umbrae, and in one scene Wright puts on a masterful and two-sided display of insanity.
Composer Michael Abels returns after delivering the music for Get Out, and his Joseph Bishara-inspired symphonics are one of the film's great achievements. Even more recognisable is the near gothic choir, which pins down the viewer during the first few minutes, and continues throughout.
While the movie constantly sets up clever scenes using excellent cinematography and positioning, Us does lack a bit of technical playfulness, the kind masterful horror director James Wan often gifts us with. While Peele and his crew know how to work a camera, both Get Out and now Us lacks a bit of colour, a bit creative camerawork to further distance it from its peers.
And that's sadly not all because, despite brilliant setups, inventive plotting and exceptional acting from a talented cast, Peele ends up committing one of the cardinal sins of horror - he attempts to contextualise in the third act, offering us an explanation for the violence and insanity which the audience has endured up to that point. Without spoiling anything, it's wildly insufficient and borderline nonsensical, and it does leave you with a tepid sigh as you exit the theatre. The movie doesn't deserve that send-off, yet that is what it got.
That said, Us looks like it comes from a seasoned director, one that has worked within the genre framework for decades, and understands the potential and pitfalls of the familiar horror structure. However, Us is Peele's second feature film, which makes this achievement quite astounding. While perhaps lacking a bit of technical prowess and identity, the actors on screen give us award-worthy performances, and the narrative inventiveness is truly refreshing. It's pretty clear that Us will be one of the best horror movies of the year.