As the beleaguered family of four at the heart of Us hit the beach, young Jason (Evan Alex) sports a Jaws t-shirt. It’s writer/director Jordan Peele’s unsubtle tribute to the scariest beach movie ever, but it’s apt for reasons well beyond the setting. Like few since Steven Spielberg, Peele is able to combine scream-inducing scares with genuine wit.
Peele, however, also happens to be an African-American man making horror movies in the late 2010s, and both of his remarkable movies gain resonance and power from acutely invoking the racial dynamics of the Trump era. Like a lot of malevolent forces in horror movie history, white supremacy is both a legitimate existential threat and colossally dumb.
While Peele’s breakout masterpiece Get Out was explicitly premised on racism taken to gothic extremes, Us is about a more general feeling of malaise and betrayal. Both the black Wilson family and their white friends the Tylers are accosted by the same uncanny enemies, but the Tylers are essentially comic supporting characters while the Wilsons are the ones we really root for.
Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), the Wilson matriarch, is happily married to Gabe (Winston Duke), but she’s still haunted by an uncanny childhood experience in which she wandered into a house of mirrors and encountered a doppelgänger who wasn’t just an illusion. She’s always been afraid her alternate self would return to wreak havoc, and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know her fear isn’t entirely misplaced.
Us doesn’t take as long as Get Out to establish its central threat, which materializes so relatively quickly that you wonder how Peele’s going to spin through the remaining hour-plus of running time. The answer: with lots of scares, lots of laughs, constant invention, and an eerie visual style that makes full use of the camera’s ability to let Peele show you exactly what he wants to and nothing else.
Once again, Peele pulls off the directorial double backflip of a film that’s so wildly entertaining and constantly chilling, you almost forget that it’s building towards a conclusion that arrives with a good and proper wallop. Peele’s next project is a Twilight Zone series reboot, and Us makes clear that he’s the right guy for it: he really knows how to relish a twist, while also understanding that a twist only works if it’s icing, not if it’s the cake.
Nyong’o anchors the film with dual performances of an intensity that vaults her into the pantheon with Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (both of them). It’s an ensemble piece, though, with the nonplussed Shahidi Wright Joseph rounding out the Wilsons while Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker lead the hapless Tylers.
Peele, who until Get Out was best-known as half of the decade’s premier sketch duo, understands that laughs and screams go best together, and has a lot of fun with the family comedy wrapped inside his horror film. Of all the surprises in Us, maybe the biggest one is that the year’s scariest movie is also the one that most closely resembles The Great Outdoors.
Us is a throwback to the golden era of horror in the ’70s and ’80s, less through explicit references than in the way Peele accomplishes all the things you thought they didn’t even try to do any more. His aggressors sport a look so iconic, it’s guaranteed to be the top costume this Halloween. (Anthony Lane observes that it may be another Spielberg homage.) They share many but not all of their targets’ inclinations and understandings, leading to some classic Romero-style pratfalls.
Most of all, they speak to a very real anxiety that’s nonetheless hard to name. Just as you can read the preoccupations of earlier eras in the scares they put onscreen, Us is set in an America that seems to be populated by people we recognize who are doing and saying things we thought weren’t possible, or hoped wouldn’t be necessary. The concise title points to a climate where it feels critical to know at all times who your allies are, and what your enemies are up to.
“Who are you?” asks a trembling character, prompting the film’s most crucial line of dialogue.
“We’re,” responds a creature with a bloodthirsty grin, “Americans.”
– Jay Gabler would like to share a PSA: Jaws is on Netflix.