Us, filmmaker Jordan Peele’s second feature film, is a well-crafted, modern thriller that hits all of the horror beats. The film starts off as a normal home-invasion story and then somehow seamlessly works in grand conspiracy theories without disconnecting from reality. Most importantly, it’s a film that demands an instant rewatch to fully grasp the story as well as catch all the little moments and the underlying metaphors.
If you were to strip this film of the unique and haunting story you would still have a masterclass of film making to watch. From the first moment Peele’s craft is instantly on display with the opening time-establishing shot of an old TV playing a Hands Across America ad. It’s a simple moment that ends up establishing more of the plot than seems possible.
It’s still 1986 and we jump to little Adelaide’s night at the Santa Cruz amusement park. Her father wins her a Michael Jackson Thriller t-shirt and then her parents bicker and eventually become distracted. This leads to Adelaide wandering off by herself into the dark California beach. A wandering child in the dark is stressful enough but then Adelaide finds herself exploring a classic horror movie trope, a house of mirrors. And despite the classic setup, Peele finds a way to make these moments fresh, tense, and instantly memorable. An incident occurs. An incident I cannot spoil but one that is an instant classic and that sets the entire movie in motion.
And now that the entire audience is unsettled Peele doesn’t let off. The title sequence, seemingly simple, establishes the tension and the upcoming oddities with a purely haunting score and a mesmerizing visual aid. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie you are hooked and buckled up for the worst.
Unfortunately from there the film dips into standard thriller fodder. It fast forwards to modern day and presents a normal family, Adelaide, now played by Lupita Nyong’o, has grown up to be a nervous but loving mother and is married to a man that fully embraces his dad joke role in life. They have a preteen daughter, ears buds firmly entrenched, and a son that is still filled with imagination and has a belief in magic. They are staying in their summer vacation house in Santa Cruz, returning to the site of Adelaide’s “incident”. Only Adelaide’s family does not yet know what happened on the beach in 1986.
The family is enjoying their time before a group of four people show up unannounced in their driveway. Unfortunately that’s as deep into the story I can go without spoiling the good parts. Just know at this point the film goes into full thriller mode which is heart-pounding but filled with moments that are expected and not exactly memorable. Luckily even in the cliche and normal beats, the film is anchored by Lupita Nyong’o’s captivating performance of a woman who steps up to kick ass to, seemingly, protect her family.
(To illustrate just how much ass she kicks, at some point Adelaide gets out of the car to check on one of the many murderous attackers she is fighting. This is a classic, “WHY ARE YOU GETTING OUT OF THE CAR” moments that your brain loves to hate in horror movies. Except in this case your brain is like, “Actually no, Adelaide’s got this”.)
In between all the high tension thriller action, the film does bounce back and forth between 1986 and the modern day to fill some of the narrative gaps but still leaves a few frustrating questions at the end. By the end of the film I’m not confident that Adelaide’s character arc tracks completely and it feels like we were missing a few scenes that would have been connective tissue or further clues to explain our protagonist’s life. Although even as I write this I will admit this is a minor complaint and there is the possibility that a rewatch will satisfy my qualms.
And minor qualms is really all I can complain about because between this stylistic thriller hitting all of the established beats and a script that, much like Get Out, is tightly written and hardly contains a wasted moment, it’s difficult to determine if Jordan Peele is a more skilled director or writer. In fact that might be Peele’s biggest accomplishment in his short filmmaker career. It almost seems impossible for one guy to be so good so quickly.
Us is a film that you will want to come back to. It’s memorable and important just like Get Out, however it is more tense and it’s themes more understated than Peele’s first film. Get Out was in your face, screaming it’s themes at you to grab your attention. It had to be. And now that Peele has your attention, Us unequivocally proves he deserves it.