*POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD*
There’s few films this year more laden with expectations than Jordan Peele’s Us. Coming hot off of capturing lighting in a bottle with the brilliant horror-satire Get Out, Peele was given the impossible task of crafting something that lived up to the legacy of a debut which garnered him an Oscar and represented a new cultural zeitgeist.
Miraculously, Peele dispels any notion of a sophomore slump almost instantaneously with a scene we think we’ve seen countless times before: we follow young Adelaide (Madison Curry) into a house of mirrors, primed for any number of obvious jump scares or sight gags. What we get instead is a bone-chilling reminder of Peele’s aptitude for filling every corner of our minds with dread. The camera shows us only the girl’s terrified expression, eyes widening, as she’s greeted with the nightmare that drives one of the most thrilling horror films of the decade.
It’s a moment that immediately keys you into the fact that Peele’s new role as one of our most preeminent horror directors is no fluke. Armed with an idea very different from Get Out, but every bit as fascinating, Peele rises to the challenge of trying to match the power of that instant classic with a surprisingly hilarious, deeply unsettling look into the skeletons in America’s closet. This is a movie seeded in American paranoia and guilt: conspiracies about thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the country and a dark use of the infamous Hands Across America campaign are just a few examples. But it’s the central premise of the film where Peele really gets to shine, asking if the real enemy behind America’s (and the world’s) anxiety is ourselves.
Peele fast-forwards to Adelaide all grown up (Lupita Nyong’o), headed out on a vacation with her charming doofus of a husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and her two children Zora and Jason (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph). As they settle in for a summer away hanging out with their privileged friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), it’s clear that Adelaide isn’t enjoying herself the way her family is. She’s back in Santa Cruz, home of the fun-house where she faced the fear that has continued to haunt her, and a series of increasingly curious coincidences is convincing her that the nightmare is rearing its ugly head once again.
Turns out her fears are correct, as a family donning red jumpsuits and armed with gold scissors soon arrives to spoil everyone’s fun. The twist is that this is no ordinary band of trespassers: they are “The Tethered”, exact duplicates of Adelaide and her family, bloodthirsty and eager to take the place of their lookalikes. The premise of evil doppelgängers is nothing new, but Peele takes it all to a new level with the implications of these clones’ beginnings.
There’s layers of subtext oozing underneath the home invasion thrills, bubbling underneath like a volcano of toxic waste waiting to erupt. It shrouds the film in a deliberately ambiguous air of supernatural vengeance, as if this nightmare is a predestined bit of punishment. In a jaw-dropping, deliciously complex exchange of dialogue, Gabe asks, “what the hell are you?” Adelaide’s twin answers with an unnerving croak: “We’re Americans.”
To reveal too much about the The Tethered’s motivations or origins is to spoil the fun, but rest assured that Peele milks the premise to its limits and then some. On a technical level, it lets Peele prove he’s a horror master like no other, staging set pieces with a patient eye that rejects any notion of cheap scares. It never buys into easy shocks, instead mounting tension through good old-fashioned blocking and healthy dose of chilling acting to boot. It’s given some levity by the film’s sneakily hilarious moments of comic relief, with everything from an Alexa gag to the family’s terrified banter landing with confidence.
It all works because there’s no grandstanding in the way Peele directs the camera, letting the performances, some striking cinematography from It Follows alum Mike Gioulakis, and Michael Abels’s chilling score do the talking for him. Everything Peele wants out of this pretty much clicks perfectly: the surprising bits of humor, the look-through-your-hands moments of terror, the masterful imagery on display. It’s all because he exudes restraint in a way few other directors in this genre manage to emulate, letting the pieces he’s brought together play out on their own accord.
While Peele’s work behind the camera is marvelous, the performances are what really steal the show here, particularly in the case of Nyong’o. Since winning an Oscar for in her earth-shattering turn in 12 Years A Slave, she’s been largely wasted in thankless supporting roles. Now she gets not only one, but two meaty roles to sink her teeth into, and she tackles each with aplomb. She turns Adelaide into a fierce, protective, and twitchy hero whose determination is matched only by her counterpart, who speaks with a spine-tingling hoarse tone and moves like a puppet from hell. It’s an instantly iconic performance, the kind of bravura horror role that catapulted Toni Collette’s Hereditary turn into the stratosphere last year.
When the film turns into a wild exposition dump in its final act, it’s clear this is a script that’s not quite as polished as Get Out. It’s asking the audience to do a lot of mental gymnastics to keep the whole thing afloat and some of the themes feel slightly under-baked, but the film is otherwise so transcendent that’s it’s easy to let it be a little bit messy. Despite collapsing a bit under scrutiny, this is still a deeply intelligent bit of horror artistry. It’s a haunted, vital work more concerned with notions of control and class than it initially lets on, standing out as the sort of film that will probably require multiple viewings to really come together. With a film this thrilling, you shouldn’t consider that a chore.