Jordan Peele’s Us is nothing short of exceptionally entertaining horror. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as the mother and father of a prototypical American family, Us joins a long tradition of doppelgänger horror while still emerging from that tradition into definitive modernity. Like Peele’s debut Get Out, the American Dream — as a white-picket-fence fantasy and as a dark reality — is crucial not only to the implicit themes of the film, but to the reason both films are scary in the first place. Yes, Us has a preponderance of classic horror moments, from jump-scares to home invasions to creepy coincidences foreshadowing a coming threat. But these tropes become entertaining again only in context of a strong underlying assertion that speaks to something in our everyday life, and while Us may not speak as explicitly as Get Out, the potency of the film is drawn from a similar source.
That aforementioned line of doppelgänger-narrative-as-horror is an interesting one, and one that makes perfect sense for Peele’s sensibilities as a writer. It’s a premise that’s been used for terrifying stuff like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dead Ringers, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and a number of unsettling works from David Lynch. Last year’s venture was Annihilation, which played with the doppelgänger motif in a supernatural way. It’s elementally creepy, the idea of meeting yourself. The question it raises is as existential as it gets: if that’s me…then who am I?
Still, the exact same setup somehow gave us The Parent Trap and Bowfinger and a frickin’ Bette Midler movie called Big Business. Remember The Other Me, that Disney Channel Original Movie? Dripping with existential dread, it was not. Apparently it’s elementally hilarious, the idea of meeting yourself. The question it raises: if that’s me…then who can we fuck with? Anyway, even though Us is definitely a horror film, Peele’s background in comedy might partially explain his initial attraction to the premise. It conjures an image of the twin Comedy/Tragedy theater masks, one the Us promos seemed to acknowledge:
While there is a bit of a comedic streak throughout Us, it’s much more naturalistic than you’d expect given the Lil Rey Howery “motherfuckin’ TSA” interludes in Get Out. Winston Duke garners the best laughs here (“I would have preferred you use a curse word in this instance”) and gives a phenomenal performance in his first screen role outside of Black Panther/Infinity War. Lupita Nyong’o gets to show off some comedic chops, too, mostly in throwing is he serious…yep, he’s serious faces at her onscreen husband. But Nyong’o is an absolute powerhouse throughout this film, regardless of wherever the tone might be swinging at any particular moment. She basically gives two Oscar-worthy performances in a single movie, as Adelaide and Red, diametrically opposed yet eerily similar in subtle ways. It’s a sight to behold.
To have a recognizable, signature style is impressive for any filmmaker, but particularly so for Peele after only two features. That ability with comedy inside horror is only part of it, and admittedly a part that seems to have noticeably matured between this picture and Peele’s first. The economy of storytelling is another aspect, both features proving lean and fast-paced even through more introspective beats. Nearly everything in Us serves dual function, and it’s interesting that a number of moments that seem like one-off jokes or gags (the boat engine, the flare gun, Elisabeth Moss’s facial surgery) come back around in dramatic context. Us may be more expansive than Get Out in scope, starting with a 1986-set prologue and utilizing far more locations, but it feels every bit as streamlined as its precursor.
It’s tough to say whether Us is “better” than Peele’s debut. Get Out had a thematic immediacy that propelled the film into the social consciousness, marking modern-day institutionalized racism as a fearsome and thriving beast. Coming just about a year before Black Panther, Get Out will forever play a crucial role in how we share stories about race in America, spanning the spectrum from the Sunken Place to Wakanda. Us likely won’t enjoy a similar station in history. But it might be a more entertaining film, pound-for-pound, and it’s no less thoughtful on the state of America for lacking an in-your-face message. The darkest versions of ourselves aren’t usually the in-your-face versions, anyway. They’re usually latent shadows, repressed and seemingly forgotten, until one of them rises up to unite the others.
Lastly, between the carnival setting and the HAA reference, Us is totally inspired by Beerfest, right?