Jordan Peele won a screenwriting Oscar for Get Out, and rightly so. The comedian-turned-filmmaker’s debut feature was a revelation, a tense, tightly-coiled riff on The Stepford Wives that doubled as a piercing bit of social commentary. Essays and YouTube clips emerged in its wake, illuminating the deep-cut references and coins of foreshadowing buried like treasure in Peele’s layered script. Us (Grade: B), his much-hyped follow-up, isn’t nearly so tidy. Like many sophomore efforts, it’s ambitious and unwieldy, leaping furiously from one idea to the next without adequately exploring any of them.
That’s surprising, perhaps, especially in light of such a trim, engaging premise: While on vacation, a family of four—mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex)—find themselves terrorized by their own doppelgängers, each of whom are played by the aforementioned actors. But Peele’s narrative extends far beyond the driveway where they first encounter their grotesque counterparts, taking on global implications that exude the kind of anxiety with which our country is currently riddled. This is both good and bad. Peele’s story, unlike most tales about a trope as thematically rich as doppelgängers, is rooted firmly in reality, with only the slightest psychological factors at play. The threat is real here; Us’ doppelgängers aren’t only scary, they’re dangerous. By virtue of that, however, Peele’s premise opens itself up to its own kind of mythology, one that serves to distract from the beauty of the director’s eye.
That’s unfortunate because the direction here is downright balletic, the camera jerking and swooping with a defined purpose. Every frame bursts with detail, whether it’s a thematic dovetail or a murky figure sprinting into the periphery. Us scores its most effective scares not from a stab or a shriek, but from the near-imperceptible, the nightmare lurking in the shadows. His tonal mastery is also on display here, with Duke’s casual, always-hilarious one-liners somehow feeling at home amidst floors splattered with gore. As he did in Get Out, Peele displays an incredible talent for suggestion, introducing gags, objects, and behaviors that pay off in ways both cathartic and gruesome.
As a horror movie, it’s deeply satisfying. After a soupy first act, the film roars like a rocket, with quick shots of burgeoning chaos—Peele remains so, so good at finding the uncanny in public behaviors—serving to disorient in ways that nullify the need for gore. It helps that his cast is so game. Nyong’o is incredible, as effective in battle as she is in moments of drama. Joseph and Alex are also compelling, each giving their doppelgängers a fierce edge that never veers into the “creepy kid” template pervading modern studio horror. Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, meanwhile, each get to flex heretofore untapped muscles as the family’s sousy, self-loathing pals.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Us splinters as it exhales. Its third act collapses during a fit of exposition that raises more questions than it answers, and its lingering twist lands with a palpable thud, failing to resonate due to a central metaphor that’s a touch too translucent. Admirably, Peele resists leaning too hard into metaphor, focusing instead on story, but that also hobbles the final moments, which strain for an unearned resonance. That hobbling is perhaps due to the breadcrumbs he’s dropped throughout—the doppelgängers say they “are America,” which will no doubt breed a slew of thinkpieces—none of which lead anywhere all that coherent.
As such, Us is something of a frustrating watch, a visual and technical marvel that just doesn’t seem to know what it is. Unlike Get Out, which only swelled in impact as you left the theater, Us is best viewed on a visceral level, not an intellectual one. That said, we’d be interested as hell in seeing its doppelgänger.