As great as Jordan Peele’s first film is, Get Out can never quite commit to any particular mood; the film has many chilling moments, but the elegant social commentary and comedic sensibility keep it from going as far toward the horror realm as it might have. Much like an orchestra, in which certain instruments must play softer to allow other melodies to be heard, he had to soften the most horrific elements of the story in order to make room for the comedy and allegory. However, if Get Out was that symphony orchestra, then Peele’s sophomore feature, Us, is a smaller, more lithe chamber ensemble. Having cut out the tug-of-war of elements, he’s created a stylish and frightening horror picture that far exceeds its predecessor in scares.
The film opens with a video prelude from 1986. We watch a TV set, which plays an advertisement for Hands Across America, a failed fundraiser in which millions of Americans were supposed to link arms in a chain traversing the continental US, with the goal of raising millions for charity. (This will be important later.) The viewer, Adelaide (played as a child by Madison Curry and an adult by Lupita Nyong’o), soon goes out with her parents for a night on the Santa Cruz Wharf. But while her parents are distracted, she wanders away into a hall of mirrors. Lost in the maze, she bumps into her reflection while searching for the exit — except it’s not a mirror, but a child who looks exactly like her, with a sickening smile.
The film cuts to the present day, as the adult Adelaide drives through the country to a beach house near Santa Cruz with her husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright) and Jason (Evan Alex). Zora has inherited her mother’s graceful body, though she’s a track star in the making — not a dancer like Adelaide. Jason is more withdrawn, like his mother, and obsessed with cheap magic tricks. As Gabe, Duke does his best Jordan Peele, adopting the director’s mannerisms and even his glasses. Their idyllic drive through the Central California forests bears an unmistakable similarity to the drive early on in Get Out. Like with that film, the cheery ride is interrupted by darker currents, though this time it’s in the form of Adelaide’s memories of her trauma rather than a darting deer.
The family makes a short detour for a day at the beach with friends who own a nearby home — Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, Josh (Tim Heidecker), a pair of insufferable (and very funny) borderline alcoholics. After Adelaide nearly has a break down when Jason wanders off, fearing he might have the same encounter she did, the family returns to their isolated beach house for the evening, and that’s when the doppelgängers arrive. Dressed in red jumpsuits, a family looking exactly like Adelaide’s own stands out in the driveway, silent and motionless. They’re empty-handed, except for the gleaming pairs of golden scissors that each figure holds.
It’s tempting to talk more of the sinister look-alikes and their motives, but the sense of terror that they inspire shouldn’t be compromised. Their appearance marks a turning point for Us, the moment it forsakes the comedy that has intermittently popped up in favor of all-out terror. There are a few great jokes and some subtler humor, much of it supplied by Duke as the nerdy dad convinced of his own coolness, but from that point on the tension is only rarely relieved.
The actors all play double duty as their doppelgängers, and Nyong’o is particularly chilling in the secondary role, an intensely physical performance that threatens to overshadow her primary character. Her croaky, gravelly voice, the sound of someone who has gone decades without speaking, is one of the most effectively creepy things I’ve ever heard.
The chilling performances are aided by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ command of light and color. Get Out, which was photographed by Toby Oliver (best known for working on pedestrian horror films) tended to look flat and overlit. Though the sunken place was one of the most original images in years, the rest of the film looks boring and bland. Gioulakis, who lensed It Follows, as well as Split and Glass for M. Night Shyamalan, has stronger visual instincts. Working with a palette based in blues and reds, he creates images that are as pleasing to look at as they are frightening.
Peele also seems to have developed as a visual artist since his first feature; he’s more willing to find clever framing tools and interesting ways to block scenes. He also borrows more freely from the masters who inspired him. During a beach scene, Jason sports a Jaws T-shirt, and Adelaide’s anxiety at being back at the scene of her childhood trauma is filmed similarly to Chief Brody’s anxious scanning of the surf as he waits for another attack. Later, during what might have been an ungainly amount of exposition, Peele instead makes it visually interesting by using a split diopter that allows objects far away and close to the camera to both be in focus. Spielberg used it effectively early in his career, especially in Jaws, but it also brings Brian De Palma’s best work to mind. It’s an inherently eerie effect; two things that should be separated by a large distance are suddenly too close for comfort.
Though Us excels at creating terror in ways that Get Out was sometimes deficient, it does still suffer from similar flaws. Just as the earlier film wasn’t particularly interested in explaining how a family of mad scientist eugenicists came to exist, Us does little to explain its twist (if it can even be called that). It makes the reveals seem a bit too easy — you can do pretty much anything in a movie if you don’t care about the consequences of those decisions.
In some ways, Us almost seems like a challenge Peele accepted to make a straight-ahead horror film. There’s nothing ‘elevated’ about it, other than it being quite good. Get Out showcased his grand ambitions, whereas Us put his impressive skill on full display. Now it’s just a question of whatever nightmare he chooses to unleash next.