Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Taps Into The Horror Of Humanity

by Ben Martin

It’s not news to anyone that comedy and horror have long-been genres that compliment one another. They both evoke extreme emotional reactions from the audience; comedy provides laughter, while horror fuels fear. Even so, it’s always surprising when a comedian gets into the horror business and does well by it. As was the case with Jordan Peele, the exceptionally talented actor, writer, director, and producer. Peele made his bones in comedy with Key & Peele (2012-2015); a sketch comedy show that fluctuated between juvenile and intelligent, socio-political humor.

Following the conclusion of the show, Peele made a surprising translation into film with Get Out (2017). Folks were surprised when they heard that Get Out was a horror movie. No doubt, Peele’s talented, but at the time, it was hard to believe that he could achieve such a genre jump. But to my surprise and that of audiences at large, the writer-director did just that. Get Out ended up being a highly original piece of work that respected genre of which it is a part — all the while providing subtextual commentary on the issues of race and classicism. More importantly, though, Peele’s movie debut reached a mass audience as opposed to just a genre audience. Aside from the curiosity, I believe that Get Out achieving such a feat is because it’s a subtle horror movie; one which relies more on suspense than scares and violence.

Thus it’s no surprise that Peele decided to continue his streak by making his sophomore effort another genre picture. One which Universal Pictures dubbed a “Social thriller”; but that Peele himself proudly called a horror film. (And a much more blatant one than Get Out at that.) Us follows a nuclear family on vacation at their beach house. Despite the matriarch, Adelaide Wilson’s (Lupita Nyong’o) apprehensions, she and her family of four are still determined to have a good time. Alas, their family vacation gets turned upside down when another mysterious family of The Wilsons’ doppelgangers comes knocking at their door.

I must admit that when the trailer for Us dropped this past Christmas, I was simultaneously excited and mildly underwhelmed. My being underwhelmed occurred merely because well, we’ve seen doppelgangers with bad intentions in horror movies before. Sometimes this identical trope is used in a more adjacent fashion, such as Black Swan (2010). Other times, doppelgangers are used more directly; like in every iteration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Then, of course, there’s The Thing (1982) and Dead Ringers (1988). Frankly, my gut reaction at the time was, “Really, killer doppelgangers again? I expected something a little more original from Jordan Peele.
Well, I should’ve known better than to doubt his creativity a second time. But just like horror movie characters themselves, I occasionally fall victim to not learning from my mistakes the first time around. With Us, Jordan Peele takes the style and skill he displayed with Get Out and improves upon it in every way. Perhaps that’s because Us is painted on a bigger canvas in every regard.  If Peele’s painting with a bigger brush on a larger canvas, the suspense is spread across it just as well as it was when it was in the contained space of Get Out. For 95% of Us’  runtime, I was on the edge of my seat.
My becoming invested in the film in review and letting its tension ratchet up was easy enough to do. Why? Because the main cast of characters in Us (The Wilson’s and their tethered doppelgängers) are all phenomenal in their duel performances. I have not seen a more believable on-screen family in a long while. When the cast is playing a nuclear family, you identify with and fear for them. On the flip-side, as their tethered doubles, the cast evokes fear.

Beyond the cast, the style and mood of Us make for an immersive experience. The movie’s cinematography is a beautiful blanket of warm darkness; one visually reminiscent of the look of films from the late 1970s-early 80s. As such, cinematographer Mike Gioulakus (It Follows) utilizes the dark to build suspense. Moreover, Us is visually stimulating in all of its shot selection. Many of which pay homage to the horror films of Brian De Palma, as well as Dario Argento, particularly Suspiria (1977). While Get Out was much more visually straightforward, Us gets weird when it comes to visuals. A weirdness which I welcome.
Beneath the filmcraft and story, are the themes which Peele’s commenting on through Us. Once again, the ideas of racism and classism in America are being commented upon; just as they were with Get Out. Except for this time, Peele not only says much more about those ideas, but he also goes beyond them. Granted, all the subjects commented on are clear text; as opposed to subtext. This film is undoubtedly a metaphor for how race and classicism in particular divide and creates fear among Americans. In this day and age, these ridiculous concepts have unfortunately not been moved past. To the contrary, these ideas are sadly at their most divisive now; almost as much if not more so than that of political party lines.
Moreover, Peele’s main thematic focus is what makes Us so scary. When you look in the mirror, you have to deal with who you see. Although it might sound trite, Us reminds the audience that we as individuals are our own worst enemies. Be it from personally embracing ideas that negatively impact humanity. Or,  because we as individuals are the only ones who truly know our strengths, weaknesses, fears, failures, and those late-night thoughts that must be contended with. Imagine having to defeat yourself, scary, huh?

If Us has a flaw, it’s that the movie tries to tackle so many ideas. None of which are done as subtext; but instead put right there on the surface. As a result, I felt that this thematic approach sometimes weighed the picture down a bit. Thus, diffusing the tension somewhat. Despite this small issue and all of Us’ commentary, the flick is still beautifully ambiguous; making it great fodder for discussion. Jordan Peele knocked this one out of the park. Us is the best movie of the year so far, and I cannot recommend it highly enough!

Us is In Theaters Now!

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