When Adelaide (Lupita N’yongo) was a child visiting the beach in Santa Cruz she wandered away from her parents and witnessed something terrifying in a hall of mirrors that left her deeply traumatised. Flash forward several years and she’s married to Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke) and has two lovely children of her own, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). A visit to the beach stirs long buried memories and Adelaide gets increasingly distressed as the day goes by. Her worst fears are realised when a family appears in their driveway. Clad in red and wielding terrifying gold scissors the family are duplicates of Adelaide’s. But what does the terrifying other Adelaide (Red) want and where did she come from?
Jordan Peele burst onto the horror scene in X with his superb debut Get Out and with Us there’s no concerns about a sophomore slump. Us is a slick, darkly funny, horror film that distresses the more you think about it’s themes. Peele sets out his store from the very first sequence as Adelaide watches a “Hands Across America” commercial with her TV framed by thematically relevant VHS movies (The Right Stuff, C.H.U.D and The Goonies). From the bombast of Adelaide’s ill advised journey into the hall of mirrors set against a thundering sky (are fairground attractions ever not terrifying?) Peele doesn’t let the tension let up for a second. There is a sense of encroaching doom from the second we meet Adelaide which never fades. Even when Adelaide is doing something as dull as making small talk on the beach in broad daylight with her cheerful lush of a friend (Elisabeth Moss in perky peak white woman mode) Peele ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. You never get a chance to get comfy or lulled into a false sense of security watching Adelaide live her happy privileged life because Peele introduces Red and her family very early on. Their arrival, red clad, cast in deepest shadow, holding hands stock still in the driveway is the stuff of nightmares. And things go very very badly from there. What starts as a slick home invasion film widens into something weirder and more distressing.
It is impossible to discuss more without completely spoiling Peele’s secrets and that I would never do. Us is in its own way an even more ferociously political piece that Get Out. While Get Out looked at the commoditisation of black bodies by white people Us considers themes of institutional racism, classism, modern slavery, how what we have most to fear is ourselves, the marginalisation of those we view as “other”, be that the poor, the disabled, foreigners, anyone who doesn’t fit our worldview of who “we” are. As Red in her terrifying voice says of her family “We are Americans”. They’re Us in every way. I could write reams and reams on the themes Peele explores in Us (and no doubt people will) but what makes him such a good writer is that he combines such weighty issues with amazing humour. He’s not hitting you over the head with worthy ideas. He leads you to them and let’s you think them through for yourself while continually puncturing the darkness with killer one liners. Gabe’s pride in his terrible boat is the source of a great deal of humour and an argument about who gets to drive based on who has the biggest kill count is very funny. Even though I saw a certain narrative twist coming very early it didn’t impact on my enjoyment one bit.
It’s slightly astonishing to think this is really Lupita Nyongo’s first lead performance and she gives a superb double performance as Adelaide/Red. As Adelaide she is supremely likeable and you’re rooting for her every step of the way as she tries to protect her family from the red clad invaders. As Red she is terrifying. Truly otherworldly with a manic stare and a discordant voice riddled with clicks and harsh guttural sounds. As both characters she is a complete bad ass (one element I loved is that as things get increasingly more insane Gabe is more than happy to let his wife deal with it knowing that she absolutely can. )
Duke builds on his charming turn in Black Panther with an equally engaging funny turn here as the loving dad who finds himself plunged into a nightmare. Both Wright and Evan are impressively natural as Adelaide’s children.
The movie looks beautiful with the cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis who also did the cinematography for the quirky but glorious looking Under the Silver Lake starring Andrew Garfield), choreography and lighting in the final dance sequence as Adelaide and Red face off being utterly breathtaking. Us also features a fine soundtrack including that creepy version of “Ive got Five on It” and a brutal use of Fuck the Police by NWA.
Darkly funny, beautifully shot and nail-bitingly tense anchored by a stunning performance from Lupita N’yongo Us is a blistering 2nd film from Jordan Peele cementing him as one of the most exciting writer/directors to grace the horror genre in years. I can’t wait to see what he does with Twilight Zone.
Us is out in cinemas now