I make it a habit of never cementing my expectations of an artist around a single shtick. When comedian Jordan Peele made the successful leap into film directing two years ago with "Get Out," my reaction was less shock at the man being able to craft the tonal opposite of what he'd been famous for and more appreciation for his ability to mix a plethora of themes, tones, and concepts into a striking, bold and entertaining vision that never compromises its integrity of storytelling or filmmaking.
That said, the irony of Peele being a master horror movie maker that existed under our noses the entire time is perhaps even more pronounced with the release of "Us," as his sophomore outing not only continues to display a staggering level of proficiency in his craft but does so with a product that almost feels like the spiritual successor to the works of George Romero at his prime.
On a night in which mysterious doppelgangers referred to as the tethered rise up and kill their original counterparts, the Wilson family's beach vacation turns into a nightmare of survival as they fight to overcome their own doppelgangers while striving to escape the carnage that they're surrounded by with the foresight of mother and wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), who's suffered some sort of childhood trauma that she seems to have attempted repressing that may be connected with the chaos of the tethered uprising.
Despite the imagery evoked by such carnage being reminiscent of a traditional zombie disaster flick, the Romero comparison is raised more out of respect for the artful execution of an unapologetic B-movie concept. Through the striking nature of the cinematography and masterful camera work, "Us" manages to tackle a lot of subject matter through making the applicability of its premise highly interpretive.
Specific cues in the story that suggest these events are only occurring in the United States imply that there may be some through line of sociopolitical phenomena characterizing the American experience, connecting the threads that are open for interpretation but in pure art house capacity, what you get out of the movie is a matter of what you're willing to see in it, which can range from the dangers of untreated mental health issues threatening to tear apart the things that we love if we don't properly confront them to the tragic extremes of class inequality in a nation that hypocritically advertises itself as providing equal opportunity.
If "Us" has any true discernible weakness, it may be that attempting to tackle so many hefty themes leads the movie to end on a note that opens more questions than provides answers. Though not necessarily a flaw in and of itself, watchers should beware that the film clearly aims to spark discussion and may leave the more passive viewer frustrated. This is not a film to be watched with your brain checked out at the door but the thing that makes "Us" such a great movie is that it indulges in the conversations that it chooses without sacrificing its make up as an excellent thriller.
Every scene is tense, every beat of action is visceral, the twists and turns of the story are mostly unpredictable, and the cast strikes a flawless balance between the atmospheric tension of the moment and the comedic moments that would punctuate them via the absurdity of the entire scenario that elicits more of a nervous laughter than a showcase of jokes.
Nyong’o continues to display a range almost unseen by any of her other contemporaries as she balances a certain playfulness on display around her family with a distressingly believable portrayal of PTSD that comes to inform her evolution into a survivalist later on while dual performing as her own disturbed doppelganger.
Her husband, played by Winston Duke, provides an excellent foil to her and tows a perfect line between being just funny enough to diffuse a situation's tension while not undercutting how nerve-wracking it is to actually watch unfold. Jordan Peele may very well have just produced a modern horror masterpiece.
Although I try to avoid using that term loosely and wouldn't want to overhype any director's career based on a roster of only two works, I will be truly impressed if I find 10 movies that force "Us" out of “best of the year” territory come December.
5 out of 5
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.