Us ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

[9.1/10] Two films is a little early to start making grand declarations about themes and quirks and predilections for a director. And yet, if I had to make a case for why Jordan Peele’s first two films, Get Out and Us are both so great, I’d chalk it up to a three-legged stool of shared qualities. He roots his films in recognizable personal relationships and social situations. He bolsters that with tremendous nuts and bolts horror. And he adds a socially conscious theme to his films, which not only makes them more resonant and pointed that slashing for slashing’s sake, but which adds something elemental and that much more disturbing to the fears he conjures.

For Us that starts with the way the Wilsons feel like a real family. Long before the true horror elements drop, there’s the recognizable dynamic between a family of four, teased out in small reactions to a song on the radio, or eye-rolls at dad’s latest dose of silliness, or debates about table manners and bed times. Some of that relies on archetypes, but that’s balanced out by great, naturalistic performances. There’s a well-defined, eminently relatable family of four set up here, which makes it easier to latch on to the characters early in the film, and easier to fear for them when things really start to go down.

The same goes for the “family vacation” setup. Just as Get Out gained instant texture from its “meeting your significant other’s parents” premise, the way that Us plays on the recognizable sense of being away from home in that situation adds to both the true feeling of the film and lends itself to the plot. The safety of home is stripped away, and in its place is the mix of the familiar and foreign that comes with a visit to a sporadically-visited vacation spot. It’s enough to sustain the rush of memories that Addie deals with, and the sense of this family being out of their comfort zone when their attackers emerge.

And holy hell, are those attackers frightening. Their guttural moans. Their stilted, almost stop-motion movements. Their creepy smiles. Their red jumpsuits and terrifying shears. Even before the disturbing, animating premise of your own doubles coming to kill you, the simple differences between the “shadows” and our main characters in movement, appearance, and presence, are enough to unnerve you alone.

Much of that comes through performance. Lupita Nyong’o is titanic in the dual-lead roles. The contrast between the fearful humanity as Addie, tinged with hints of the film’s big twist, is remarkable in its realness. And her equal and opposite turn as Red, with such striking choices made in terms of voice and movement, marks her as the biggest strength in a film with few weaknesses to begin with. But she’s bolstered by outstanding supporting characters, from Winston Duke whose cuddly dad Gabe brings much of the film’s necessary lightness and humor, to Elisabeth Moss, whose one-scene wonder outing as the “shadow” admiring herself in the mirror is astounding in and of itself.

But Peele and company find incredible ways to use the menace of those assailants to fit different, unique, and above all frightening situation. It’s impressive how quickly Us cuts to the chase, delving into a home invasion, a brief moment of refuge, an endless chase while the world falls apart. The film’s creative team builds to these amazing sequences, each set up by some minor detail or feature of the premise, that leaves the viewer feeling as though our heroes are never truly safe. Us maintains the tension at a breakneck pace, with just enough moments for the audience to catch its breath before the next, visually striking sequence barrels into the frame.

With that, Us has many of the rhythms of a zombie movie, and much of the same undercurrent of social commentary at the core of that subgenre. There is a classist critique at the heart of the film, one that makes its antagonists terrifying and alien to the main characters and to the audience, but one that also ultimately makes them sympathetic, or at least understandable, in their desire to have the same things that their surface-dwelling counterparts take for granted.

You don’t have to stretch too far to see the hordes of unkempt, disquieting figures emerging from underground as a metaphor for problems of homelessness, problems of poverty, problems of those left behind from the prosperity and abundance that so many enjoy unreflectively (your humble reviewer very much included). The terror of Us undoubtedly comes from its well-built scares, chilling performances, and the atavistic anxiety of pursuit. But it also comes from the sense of this act as our chickens coming home to roost, the mortal cost of years of largesse extracted in flesh from the unseen unable to share in the spoils of modernity.

The most telling line in the film is Red’s response when asked who she and her family are. “We’re Americans.” Us builds empathy for its terrifying murderers in Red’s tales of woe, her plea that they are just like the ones above them: flesh and bone and blood and soul. That’s always the fear at the heart of a good undead flick -- a chilling reflection of ourselves, an abstraction that Peele makes literal and utterly terrifying in his realization.

Granted, if you stop and think about the reveal for too long, the origin of these “shadows”, it starts to fall apart, raising questions of plausibility and practicality that strain the shackles of the central idea. Still, it’s enough to pass the smell test in the moment, and to support the themes Peele & co. are channeling here. That makes it a little less perfectly clockwork than Get Out, but it arguably reaches for more in its scope, even if more falls through its grasp.

Still, what’s left comes through in its final twist, that sense of “there but for the grace of god go we,” the sense of profound injustice that merely needed the right, chance vessel to concentrate and liberate, the sense of the last lingering question of who deserves what, in light of the means used to acquire it all and the abuses visited on both ends.

Us puts those heady themes to work to frighten us with his haunting figures emerging from darkness and shattering the illusion of safety we work so hard to build in the light. He makes the middle class family, so often the focus of Hollywood, so recognizable and real in a way that heightens the terror when it all comes crashing down upon them. And he puts his focus on something more deeply unsettling that transcends the space between the first frame and the end credits. There are people no less human than ourselves who go unseen, made to suffer behind a veil to our benefit, to our apathy, who only merit our notice, and our fear, when they dare to peek above and demand a small slice of what we enjoy without thought or care.

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