REVIEW: You Haven’t Seen Jordan Peele’s US Until You’ve Seen It Twice
Given its obsession with duality and doppelgängers, it's fitting that Jordan Peele's Us - the director's follow-up to 2017's Oscar-winning Get Out - is not one movie, but two.
There's the version you'll experience the first time around, which is essentially a bizarro home invasion horror film with a few curveballs better left unmentioned, and then there's the version you experience on second viewing. Much like Peele's previous film, the layers of Us don't really reveal themselves until you understand the game being played, and then ... symbols start locking into place. Details which seemed innocuous the first time around leap off the screen at you. What you thought were throwaway lines of dialogue are now super-charged with meaning. This is next-level filmmaking we're talking about here, the kind of intricate, brilliantly-realized vision we encounter in a multiplex, what, maybe a few times every year? If we're lucky? And now Peele's done it twice in a row? This is horror history happening in real time, folks, and I hope all of you are paying attention.
Now, here's the hard part: our best conversations about Us lie ahead of us. There's very little I can tell you about this movie pre-release (I mean, I suppose I could just spoil the whole goddamn thing, but anyone who'd do that should surely be beaten to death where they stand; no jury would convict us), nothing but the barest of facts. If it were up to me, this is more or less where this review would end, with me giving a full-throated recommendation to Us and telling you to meet me back here in a week or so in order to discuss the film in the way it was meant to be discussed. Unfortunately, my contract stipulates that I provide you with a bit more than that, so here we go. Just rest assured I'm not gonna ruin anything for you.
For the most part, Us revolves around the Wilson family - father Gabe (Winston Duke), mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) - who arrive at a beachfront cottage to spend a lazy weekend together. Upon visiting the nearby Santa Cruz pier, Jason encounters an odd man standing by the shoreline, blood dripping from one gloved hand. Later that evening, just as the family's getting ready to go to bed, another family of four arrives. In appearance, they are carbon copies of the Wilson family. In every other way? Not so much. This family of doppelgängers are furious and violent. Only one of them speaks. And before too long, they've made it clear why they've arrived: to eliminate the Wilsons and take their place.
Virtually everything that happens from that point on must be considered, in one way or another, a spoiler. So let's leave the setup there and move on to the nuts and bolts of this thing, all of which can be discussed safely. For starters, Us is a gorgeous film, beautifully shot (by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis) and filled with both rich colors and memorable locations. Peele once again proves himself adept at establishing geography within those locations before each new set piece - a move which keeps things clear for the audience while also allowing him to subvert our expectations - and he's not afraid to let things play out a little longer than necessary in order to ratchet up the tension.
Tension's not the only thing being worked on a gradient in Us. Every twenty minutes or so, Peele's script drops a new piece of information in our laps and suddenly the narrative kicks up a notch, a clever bit of structuring which creates the effect of a film that is constantly expanding in scale. It's like clockwork: just when you think you've got a handle on where this is all headed, something else occurs and the game changes. This continues right up through the very last scene, playing the audience like a fiddle the whole way through.
For as much credit as Peele's gonna get here (all of it, yes, very much deserved), just as much credit should be given over to the film's incredible cast, which is across-the-board excellent. Nyong'o's the standout here (indeed, she deserves to be remembered come next year's Oscar race), but Duke's also doing a Homer Simpson Everyman thing that absolutely kills (his early scenes, which find him just Dad'ing around, are very funny). Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss also make the most of their roles, a couple whose presence in the film slyly comments on the type of characters the horror genre might normally cast with minority actors.
There's so much more I wanna talk about. The mythology that Peele's created. The related attention to detail. The film's multiple layers, one of which seems to be a scorching critique of Modern America. The meticulous dispensation of clues. The "Good Vibrations" needle drop, and the accompanying shot I'm already prepared to start calling "iconic". The leaps the film asks the audience to take, and whether or not it's likely that general audiences will be willing to take them. Us is an absolute feast for horror fans, a film we're gonna spend the next two years dissecting and decoding and making casual references to just like we do with a number of other brainy genre classics. Those conversations are going to be a goddamn blast, and I look forward to having them with you.
For now, just go see Us. Then see it again, so you can say you've really seen it.
I promise you'll know what I mean.