Us

(Peele, 2019)

It may be early in the year, but 2019 is already shaping up to be a defining moment in the life and career of Jordan Peele. He has a role in the latest installment of the Toy Story franchise, his reboot of The Twilight Zone has garnered rave reviews, and he even received a Best Picture nomination for producing Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Then, of course, you have Us, which snagged the second highest opening weekend for a live-action film based on an original concept (no adaptations or sequels). The only film above it? James Cameron’s Avatar… so, yeah. The fact that (former sketch comic) Jordan Peele is able draw a huge opening weekend crowd to see his horror film is a feat in and of itself.

It seems clear that Peele has captured the attention of the moviegoing public, once again convincing even the most squeamish viewers to walk into his house of mirrors and face their fears. Both Get Out and Us fit snuggly within the horror genre, but Peele is trying to do a lot more than scare you. Even the word “horror” doesn’t quite do the film justice. Terror, paranoia, and suspense are all better descriptors.

The horror genre has long been defined by foolish characters, mindless violence, and startling jump scares, but Us is nothing of the sort. A self-described “nightmare,” Us follows a normal American family who encounter their doppelgängers during a fun-in-the-sun beach vacation. As I’m sure you can imagine, these doppelgängers do not come in peace and everything is not as it seems. Because Us is a film full of mystery, saying anything more about the plot or themes would surely detract from the viewing experience. But what I can tell you is that Us is awesome. 

In terms of tone, Peele continues his track record of blending suspense and situational comedy, albeit less effectively than in Get Out. Still, Us finds Peele owning his success and directing with more confidence. “The split” (as I will now call it) between suspense and comedy is most clearly reflected in the film’s two main characters: Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide and Winston Duke’s Gabe. Adelaide deals with past traumas while Gabe makes ridiculous purchases and cracks dad jokes. You can even see the split echoed in the base elements of the film. Much of Peele’s dialogue sounds like that of a typical road trip movie, while the visual references are clearly inspired by horror classics like The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street, and even The Lost Boys. This duality causes the movie to feel a bit disjointed at times, but even Peele’s messiest scenes are pretty damn good.

The highlight of Us, and the actor everyone will be talking about for months, is Lupita Nyong’o. Lupita’s performance as Adelaide (and her doppelgänger, Red) is nothing short of magnificent. Us marks the first time Nyong’o has ever received top-billing, and boy does she knock it out of the park. As Adelaide, Nyong’o once again proves that she is a fantastic dramatic actor who is worthy of our time and attention. As Red, Nyong’o shows us that she is capable of a full physical and emotional transformation. Adelaide shows us why Lupita Nyong’o is a movie star, but Red shows us why she has an Oscar and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Us probably won’t be the cultural phenomenon that Get Out was, but it will still be one of year’s most talked about and analyzed films. Hell, it might even garner Lupita another Oscar nom if we’re lucky. But if Us proves anything, it proves that Peele is no longer a director to watch— he’s a director to respect. ★★★★½

David Merkle