By John H. Foote
Let me be clear, I did not understand or support the love in for Jordan Peele’s film Get Out (2017), the darling of the Oscars two years ago, winning Best Original Screenplay and earning nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. I felt the film had its moments, was well acted, and was creepy but one of the years best films? Nope, not even close. So, I waited anxiously for his follow up film, to see if he is the real deal, and finally here it is.
And yes, he is the real deal.
Us is a solid horror film, using the home invasion by doppelgängers to push its narrative, but not just any home invasion, this one is genuinely horrifying.
In what could be an extended Twilight Zone episode, the director plunges his characters and audience into a world that is a nightmare come to life, a living hell.
30 years before, in 1986, young Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) has an encounter with something strange in a hall of mirrors in the amusement park in Santa Cruz. She buries the incident deep in her subconscious, only to have it roar back to her 30 years later. She and her family, husband Gave (Winston Duke) and two well adjusted kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), head back to Santa Cruz for a vacation and while there seem to wake long festering demons.
Back home one night they look out their window and announce, “There’s a family in our driveway” and sure enough there is, dressed identically in red, messy and unkept. The strange family make their way into the home, where it is discovered they look exactly like Adelaide and her family, though only the woman speaks, in halting, gritty tones as though she had just recently learned to speak.
What do they want? How will they get it? Can Adelaide and her family fight back?
With horror they realize, “they are us”.
Peele is very good at bringing social commentary into his work, as he did with race relations in Get Out. Here it is very different because the family are forced to look at themselves, to look at each other and say to themselves, the trouble is us. In this Trumpian society we spend so much time laying blame, demonizing others, attacking people for their race, that we spend little time looking at the source of our problems, looking back at us in the mirror. The film asks if there are two of us existing in a single universe, polar opposites, and what would happen if they came face to face with each other? Would the good win out? Or would the streetwise evil of the bad take control?
It makes for some horrifying sequences in the film.
What I liked was that the normal positions of family were turned upside down with the husband unable to be the protector and the daughter being the one who challenges the doppelgängers best.
Peele has created one of the more beautiful horror films in recent memory, with some stunning shots that are utterly breathtaking. Not since The Shining (1980) has a horror looked so gorgeous.
Nyong’o has not done much since her Oscar win for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave (2013) but she makes up for that time away from the screen here with a superb performance. Portraying Adelaide the good, she is fierce yet terrified, watching her family being torn apart by themselves. It’s as her double that she truly excels, dead eyes, a gritty ugly voice and pure menace in each movement and glare. How can someone so tiny be so frightening? Though very early in the year, I am hoping the actress earns some attention come Oscar time. She brings genuine presence to both characters, something the film would be less without.
Winston Duke brings some interesting comic relief as her husband, while the great Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as her neighbour and friend.
Miss Joseph is excellent as the fearless daughter more than wiling to stand up to the doubles and fight for her family. It is a fine, confident performance from a young lady I expect to see much more of in the future.
Peele has had an interesting career, moving easily from comedian to Academy Award nominated director and Oscar winning writer, and now seems in pace to be this generation’s voice of horror, though I think that is far too limiting for him. My belief is that this young man has a masterpiece of three in him and he is just getting stared.
Unsettling, deeply troubling, frightening, yet beautiful, Us is a magnificent achievement.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.