Us clarifies what Get Out implies. Even after only two films, Jordan Peele’s filmmaking seems preconfigured for precision, the Hitchcock comparisons just sitting there, waiting to be shoved between commas, while Peele openly speaks and acts in allusions. Us, like Get Out before it but moreso, wastes nothing: time, film stock, the equally precise capabilities of his actors and crew, real estate in the frame, chance for a gag. If his films are the sum of their influences, that means he’s a smart filmmaker with a lot of ideas, someone who knows how to hone down those ideas into stories that never bloat, though he’s unafraid to confound his audience with exposition or take easy shots—like the film’s final twist—that swell and grow in the mind with meaning the longer one tries to insist, if one were inclined to do so, that what Peele’s doing is easy at all.
A family comedy studded with dread, then a home invasion thriller, then a head-on sci-fi horror flick, Us quickly acquaints us with the Wilson family: calming matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), gregarious dad Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter wise beyond her years Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and adorable epitome of the innocent younger brother, Jason (Evan Alex). Though far from shallow, the characters take on archetypal signifiers, whether it’s Zora’s penchant for running or that Gabe’s a big guy whose bulk betrays a softer heart, Peele never spoonfeeding cheap characterizations but just getting us on his wavelength with maximum efficiency. We like this family, and they seem to like each other, especially in contrast to family friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), who proudly represent their brand: being affluent, obnoxious white people. Us isn’t explicitly about race, but it is about humanity’s inherent knack for Othering, for boxing people into narrow perspectives and then holding them responsible for everyone vaguely falling within a Venn diagram. Kitty jokes about killing Josh; there is no punchline. We get it, Josh sucks.
Both families gather at their respective summer homes, drinking by the beach in Santa Cruz while Adelaide grows increasingly paranoid that something bad lurks, has been lurking forever, just outside of her consciousness. Dramatic irony: We know that Adelaide still thinks of a traumatic experience she had as a child, in 1986, because we saw it at the beginning of the film. Peele serves up a cold open in which a young Adelaide, at the very same beach, wanders away from her dad and into a haunted house, where she comes face to face with a sight that breaks her brain. Which probably has something to do with the family, dressed all in red and brandishing scissors the size of novelty ceremonial ribbon cutters, who show up (at 11:11 pm) to take over the Wilsons’ home and, when not grunting or whinnying, speak in strangled ghost-cadence. Also: They look just like the Wilsons, but twisted, as if they’re made of darker stuff. Nightmares come wailing into the light, stronger and faster and so much more brutal than their normie counterparts.
Strangeness multiplies as the Wilsons’ crisis seems to spread apocalyptically outward. By the time we reach an attempt at an explanation for everything—a De Palma-heavy split diopter shot telling of doppelgangers and C.H.U.D.-like underground societies—it can hardly satisfy the masterful tension Peele’s captured up to that point. Regardless of how sufficiently we’re able to parse what’s actually going on (and one’s inclined to see the film more than once to get a grip) the images remain, stark and hilarious and horrifying: a child’s burned face, a misfired flare gun, a cult-like spectacle of inhuman devotion, a Tim Heidecker bent over maniacally, walking as if he’s balanced on a thorax, his soul as good as creased. Divorced from context, these moments still speak of absurdity—of witty one-liners paired with mind-boggling horror—of a future in which we’ve so alienated ourselves from ourselves that we’re bound to cut that tether that keeps us together, sooner or later, and completely unravel. We are our undoing.
Trauma can do the same: Fissure the self, divide a poor psyche. And Peele’s worlds dwell within ever-present trauma, his characters struggling to survive by keeping control of themselves despite outside forces bent on cutting that umbilical connection between person and—what, their soul? Their essence? Their fathomless subconscious? Lupita Nyong’o, especially, plays Adelaide as more than a traumatized person, but as someone whose traumatic experience broke them in two and then lost both halves down the opaque crack between. The desperation in her eyes bears the fear of being lost in the pitch-black dark with only your worst nightmare—your fears about who you, who we, truly are—for company.
Let the Hitchcock comparisons come. Peele deserves them well enough. Best not to think about it too hard, to not ruin a good thing, to demand that Us be anything more than sublimely entertaining and wonderfully thoughtful, endlessly disturbing genre filmmaking. If Get Out introduced a savvy culture vulture to a moviegoing public starving for original voices and underrepresented perspectives, then Us shapes that introduction with exacting intimacy and humor and a lot of blood, pointing back (at Romero and De Palma and, yes, Hitchcock) as adamantly as it points forward—three fingers always pointing at ourselves.
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.