How do you follow up a smash hit debut film that ended up as a genuine cultural phenomenon? If you’re Jordan Peele, you embrace the creative freedom that massive financial and critical success buys you and craft a unique, slightly messy horror film heaving with ambition and subtext and introduce a whole new kind of monster to the genre. Us is entirely its own beast, drawing from a lot of different horror wells, but, in the end, resembling nothing but itself.
Us’s marketing has been deliberately vague on the specifics of its plot, centring on its deeply unnerving atmosphere as a family’s holiday is interrupted by an invasion of violent doppelgangers. From there, Peele builds ever outwards, mixing a terrifying home invasion story with a grand, fascinating mythology. It means that a lot of the scares in Us are front-loaded. The first third is all creepy atmosphere and sudden shocks, but the increase in scope transforms it into more of a mystery thriller than the close-quarters horror it initially appears to be. It might disappoint some who were looking for the tightly wound terror found in Get Out, but in refusing to rest on his laurels, Peele marks himself as a reliably original and unpredictable horror filmmaker.
With the doppelganger conceit at its heart, Us asks a lot of its cast, who all have to put in intense dual performances. Lupita Nyong’o is particularly brilliant as battle-ready mum Adelaide Wilson, who has traumatic previous experience with the shadowy lookalikes, and her eerily calm, raspy counterpart Red. To go into exactly how fantastic Nyong’o’s performance is delves slightly into spoiler territory, but a lot of the story’s major moments hinge solely on her, and she makes all of them work, shifting between menacingly opaque and ferociously driven. In the last 15 minutes, Peele’s script goes off the rails somewhat, raising big questions that it can’t answer, but Nyong’o’s magnetic presence keeps you gripped regardless.
Fellow Black Panther alumnus Winston Duke is also great as cheesy dad Gabe and his lumbering shadow self Abe, continuing the scene-stealingly funny streak he established in that MCU entry with a role that functions largely as some much-appreciated comic relief. Meanwhile, the fearsome acting coaxed from the kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph, whose teenage Zora has the scariest doppelganger, and Evan Alex) further proves Peele to be a hugely impressive actor’s director, as does his perfect casting of Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as the Wilsons’ awful neighbours.
When Us fully leans into its horror status, it is astoundingly effective, frightening both in its sense of creeping dread and in its more action-y, jump scare moments. Violence is kept intimate and physical – despite this being a story of a particularly American bloodbath, there’s never a gun in sight. Peele’s eye for the horror of the uncanny is very sharp – watch the way in which the young doppelgangers scuttle more than they walk – and there are some haunting scenes of gore-soaked rictus grins. This intensity is kept up even in the less obviously scary stretches by the nerve-shredding score from Michael Abels, and the chilling remix of ‘I Got 5 On It’ from the trailer is deployed expertly a couple of times.
Though there isn’t a conceit that quite matches the unforgettable Sunken Place from Get Out, Us’s design work is still top notch, from the dilapidated tunnels that house the doppelgangers to their iconic red suits, single gloves, and gold scissors. All these visuals loop ingeniously back into the story, even as the story itself starts to come undone. Much of the world-building is left too late to really satisfy, and there are some blindingly obvious twists later on that you’ll likely guess long before they arrive.
That said, an expansive but flawed lore is still more exciting than the generic ghosts, demons, and slashers that populate so much of the horror genre, and you’ll be having such a blast with Us that these story quibbles won’t matter so much in the moment. Peele takes all of America and its privilege to task (there are so many allusions to so many cultural moments that it’ll take months to fully unpack), all the while reminding us of the sheer visceral excitement of seeing familial togetherness and ingenuity fighting against incomprehensible terror.