With 2017’s Get Out, comedian-turned-filmmaker Jordan Peele burst onto the scene in a full sprint. With just one film under his belt, Peele was already dubbed this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock, setting expectations unreasonably high for Us, Peele’s 2019 sophomoric follow-up. Although Us isn’t Peele’s second masterpiece in as many tries, the ponderous plot and themes may make Us, not Get Out, the longer standing fixture in the cultural conversation.
On vacation in Santa Cruz, California, young Adelaide (Madison Curry) becomes separated from her family late at night at the beach boardwalk. As a storm rolls in, she seeks shelter in a house of mirrors. There, Adelaide has a traumatic meeting with a doppelgänger before she is reunited with her family. Decades later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is again on vacation with her family in Santa Cruz, now suffering from PTSD onset by the disquieting confrontation with her doppelgänger years prior.
Adelaide’s husband Gabe (Winston Duke) begs Adelaide to take the family to the beach in spite of her trepidation. Won over by her husband’s pleading, she agrees that she, Gabe, and their two children, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), should go, so long as they return to the family’s vacation home before dark. Meeting family friends Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their two kids, Becca and Lindsey (Cali Sheldon and Noelle Sheldon) at the beach, the families enjoy a (mostly) harmless day before arriving home before sunset.
A serene night in the vacation home is soon interrupted by four jumpsuit-clad, scissor-wielding figures holding hands in their driveway. Gabe is sent to investigate while Adelaide protects the children. Soon, the invaders, four doppelgängers—one for each member of the family—gain access to the home. Adelaide, Gabe, Zora, and Jason must outwit their doubles in order to survive.
Despite Peele’s protests, Us is not a horror movie. Audiences will expend too much brain power asking and answering questions surrounding the mysterious doppelgängers (labeled “Tethered” by the movie) to qualify Us as a pure horror film. Instead, like its predecessor, it’s a thriller. Peele has smartly branded himself as a filmmaker who draws astute audiences, and being required to put on a thinking cap before entering the theater is both a blessing and a curse for Peele here.
While the logline for Us can be explained in five words (“doppelgängers trying to kill us”), the “how” and “why” behind it are complicated and dubious. For this reason, Us is susceptible to long expository monologues as a narrative device. Even after hearing these monologues, you may respond to Peele’s answers with more questions, which begs the meta-question: does Peele (or any other storyteller) have a responsibility to flesh out the story he’s affixed a complex theme to? I would argue no, so long as the storytelling world and its rules are not broken or in open conflict with the narrative.
Audiences are regularly asked to do the legwork on plot details. In my estimation, it comes in three distinct flavors: 1) in the case of ambiguous endings, 2) when the storyteller didn’t do their homework and wants the audiences to fill in the gaps, or 3) when the storyteller invites the audience to come play in the sandbox with them. Us falls squarely into the latter category. Still, the questions of practicality intrude on the themes, which detracts from the work unless you approach it with a Westworld-ian fascination.
Story aside, the real revelation of Us is how far Peele has come since Get Out. Peele was a bona fide auteur after Get Out, but Us is another bag entirely. It was evident that Peele thinks and cares deeply about imagery in his directorial debut. Us is no different, with one added bonus: it’s visually stunning. The lighting, color choices, and foreshadowed details illuminate a talented director taking a developmental leap forward.
Both director and actor deserve credit for the performances, too. Duke, Moss, and Nyong’o especially, steal the show. Nyong’o, carrying the film as its emotional and cerebral center, plays Adelaide and her Tethered version, Red, with meticulous consideration. Her physicality, facial work, and balance between the two roles is nothing short of incredible. Horror performances are among the most demanding in the industry, and I make a near-annual case for the genre’s best to receive a Best Actor/Actress nomination. Last year it was Toni Collette in Hereditary. Is Us the high-profile film to finally vault its star into award season?
An artist can chase a masterpiece for their entire life, especially when that work comes early in their career. Following greatness is never easy, and it is sometimes impossible. It may take time for Peele to surpass Get Out, but proudly imperfect Us is proof that it’ll be worth it to follow him until he does. You’ll never look at rabbits, scissors (golden or otherwise), or digital clocks bleating 11:11 the same way again.