Would Get Out have turned out to be the Oscar-winning, pop culture sensation it was in 2017 had it not come as a surprise? It’s an intriguing question. Jordan Peele’s sophomore film, Us, hadn’t the luxury of relative anonymity. Whilst it will be remembered well, Get Out levels of success are unlikely. Critically speaking, Us is a solid early entry in Peele’s promising career, boasting stellar visuals and a tremendous leading turn by Lupita Nyong’o. If the film doesn’t quite crawl under the skin, it certainly screams out for admiration.
Rumour has it that Peele, affronted by suggestion that his debut was a comedy, leapt into round two determined to deliver a follow up that would be horror through and through. In effect, what that means is more violence. Us remains a laugh out loud hoot, sees Get Out composer Michael Abels nail another memorably staccato score and finds Peele still mining the familiar for all it unsettling potential. More rabbits but scissors too. Just two films into his oeuvre, it’s impressive how succinctly Peele has developed a cinematic voice that is unique and recognisably his own. Bubbling beneath his trademark comic-horror is that same political outrage that set Get Out apart from the pack. Race is of lesser contextual significance here but is nonetheless prevalent in shots of lone brown rabbits in a sea of white – eleven to a row – or the handcuffs shackled to one character through much of the runtime.
A prologue opens the film in 1986 Santa Cruz. Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) is holidaying with her parents at a beach fronted leisure park but soon finds herself drawn to wandering astray. What with Adelaide’s dainty pigtails and inquisitive gaze, not to mention the toffee apple she carries, it’s an instantly iconic start. Through the funfair she weaves – passing a man with a cardboard sign bearing reference to Jeremiah 11:11 en route – and into a hall of mirrors. Reflections will be of paramount importance throughout all that follows so take note. If this sequence chills you to the bone, as it has many, then you’re in for one hell of a ride. If not, don’t expect too much terror but stick with it. Brilliant later choreography is chief among the terrors to come.
Flash forward to the present day and the grown up Adelaide (Nyong’o) is returning to her old holiday haunt with husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Alex Evan). Whilst there, the quartet will meet with family friends the Tylers – Elizabeth Moss’ Kitty, Tim Heidecker’s Josh and their twin daughters – and, much to Adelaide’s indignation, the beach. In leading to his first twist – a real cracker – Peele does well to succinctly capture relatable family dynamics and build layers of dimension to characters who prove all too easy to invest in. Zora, we learn, is thinking of quitting the school athletics team, whilst her mother clearly carries the burden of post traumatic stress disorder. These aren’t overplayed nods to a life beyond the story but subtly, successfully suggest a wider picture. Indeed, detail is the delicious delight of Us and pervades all from Adelaide’s old videotapes to the very specifically relevant board games within the holiday home’s toy cupboard. Repeat viewings will reward the sharp eyed no end.
Exquisite production design can, however, only take a film so far and there is a sense that Us is perhaps more an academic success than emotional. Such is not the fault of the cast, who excel in roles that demand the creation of dual personalities, but rather the intricacy of Peele’s vision. Tremendously shot and visually ambitious in the extreme, Us warrants intense admiration for all that it achieves and insists upon concentration. Peele’s story is not necessarily complex – concerning the rise of tunnel dwelling doppelgängers known as the ‘tethered’ – but rests upon a web of intersecting conceits and tightly woven omens. Relaxing into a film in which every image counts is no mean feat and horror is no exception.
That said, so much of the film is genuinely outstanding that it feels perfunctory to complain. Almost as though the critic is in the wrong. Nyong’o is exceptional in the lead and is matched well by a scene stealing Duke. The score and soundtrack are perfection and Peele’s wit remains welcome amid darker ideas. As for what this is all about? The debates that will and must ensue will be glorious to behold.