A creepy tale of doubles complete with eerie twists and turns, Us is a great second film from director Jordan Peele.
Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) take kids Zora (Shahidi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) on holiday to the Californian coast, though a traumatic childhood experience there has Adelaide on edge. The longer they spend there, the weirder it gets for her, until exact doubles of the four family members appear outside their holiday home, when all hell breaks loose.
Peele (an accomplished comedian) broke into film via writing and directing the superb (and Oscar winning!) Get Out in 2017, and his follow up has the same unique voice and focus, feeling like nothing else in horror cinema. I would say this is more of a horror thriller, but that depends entirely on how scared you are! Nevertheless, his second movie echoes his first on multiple levels, while being enjoyable in a completely different way.
Both films focus on protagonists not truly knowing what they think they know about their fellow Americans and their country (that doesn’t make it any less interesting for international viewers)! Peele’s mix of wit and bitterly dark messaging paints a picture of a disturbing American underbelly, and his different, culturally aware voice on it makes me hope he can continue making these unconventional, stylish horrors.
The underlying theme is that age old horror of meeting your exact double (and confronting yourself, if we’re being psychological), mixed with more contemporary ideas around conspiracies and urban myths. I think it’s safe to say it doesn’t hit the powerful buttons Get Out does – this is more of a genre movie – but it’s still wittily written and constructed.
It’s also (as can be seen from the poster) a quite distinctive looking film, with some strong aesthetics. Taking place largely in Santa Cruz beach and fairground, the movie isn’t just told in the dark, but uses the blazing sunshine to accentuate the horror later on. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis utilises light and its absence cleverly for suspense and to build tensions, specifically when the doubles are backlit in terrifying shadow when first encountered.
Interior and exterior scenes, and some subterranean ones, are believably but attractively lit for a sense of place or to raise the stakes (a final act confrontation expertly uses shadow and the mundane lights of office corridors). Overall this technical element adds to a chilling underlying mood, whether on a disturbing stormy night on the beach, a creepy hall of mirrors, a dark summer house in the wilderness or even a deserted beachside street at the height of the day.
Visually the costume design for the doubles is distinctive too: blood red jumpsuits, large golden scissors and bizarre leather fingerless gloves making for unforgettable costumes (which I’m sure will be well imitated for Halloween costumes). The locations are also worth a mention, from the believably naff summer house the family stays in to their friends’ opulent, glass walled show-off pad, while the final act takes place somewhere cleverly presented to pose lots of questions.
Michael Abels’ score adds another layer to that unsettling feeling, beginning with a haunting choral song (evoking anotehr used in Get Out) and continuing with doomy strings as an everpresent, uncomfortable background. Popular songs are threaded throughout, and used in creatively funny or disturbing ways, most notably the Beach Boy’s ‘Good Vibrations’ and N.W.A.’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’.
However, two others dominate: ‘I Got 5 On It’ by the Luniz is a strong hit of 90s nostalgia for those of us who remember it, and is used multiple times to great effect (its doomy basslines and main melody particularly). An orchestral adaptation is absolutely excellent when it gets used towards the end! On the flipside, Minnie Riperton’s ‘Les Fleur’ – a song you’ll recognise but not know where from – brings an unhinged, ironic optimism to the scenes in which it appears.
The small cast makes quite an impression, none more so than Lupita Nyong’o’s great double performance as Adelaide and Red. It’s hard to remember it’s the same person sometimes, so much does she change between the two! Adelaide is all repressed stress and concern, knowing something’s coming and it’s not good, while Red is malevolence and anger, coupled with an incredibly weird voice and eyebrowless face with gaping, haunting eyes. All in all, the transformation between the two makes for a quite unnerving mixture, showcasing the actress’ ability.
Winston Duke’s dual role is less featured but his hilarious, Homer-esque dad is one part of the film’s comedic elements, his bumbling soft dad suddenly faced with his double, a shrieking, haunting man mountain quite distinctively odd and sadly lesser featured. The two younger actors are also very adept at making their four accumulated parts stand out, Wright Joseph the archetype bored teen jolted out of an ironic mood, and her counterpart a gurning, gymnastic horror. Alex is sympathetic as the quiet introvert, but unnerving as the young boy’s disfigured, masked, grunting alternate.
Finally, comedian Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss (of The Handmaid’s Tale) have great fun as the family’s better off, bragging friends, Heidecker playing broad comic relief (even his alternate behaves like an idiot, though there are hints of horror beneath that), while Moss is great as a more arrogant, flippant character and – in a couple of brief but harrowing scenes – very weird as her double, a scene involving make up using her distinctive features to horrifying effect.
A strong secondary effort from Peele, Us feels different and succeeds in being a lower key, more intriguing horror thriller than many of its competitor movies. Worth a watch!