Film Review: Jordan Peele’s Us

The Get Out director has seen the enemy, and it is us

Photo by Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Is it fair to say that Jordan Peele is this generation’s John Carpenter? With his sly grasp of the intersection of popcorn thrills and political allegory, it’s a reasonable comparison. After he provided an Oscar-worthy analysis of race relations in Get Out, now America’s id is probed in Us.

The Wilson family is as atomic as they come. Mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex) are a nice, middle-class family taking a summer vacation in Santa Cruz – a fine idea, except, as an opening flashback shows, Adelaide has some unpleasant memories of the resort city after a bizarre trip into an amusement park. Still, she puts them aside to spend some time on the beach with their drunken friends, the Tylers (Tim Heidecker and SXSW 2019 MVP Elisabeth Moss). All seems well until they return to their summer home, where four figures – a family: two parents, two kids – suddenly appear in their driveway.

These others are skittering, shuddering, degraded copies of the Wilsons, and their assault on the family is an hour-long nightmare. Peele ratchets up the tension in extraordinary fashion, but most especially in the dual performances his cast creates. Each iteration of the family is an inversion and a perversion, and the different forms of malice they portray and the different fears they invoke in their originals are hooks in the eyes.

Yet for all that, there’s a catch: Us is excellence of execution – or rather, the best version imaginable of a script that feels underdone, and occasionally overwrought. The revelation of what drives these simulacra verges on trite and depends on (no kidding) a Hands Across America reference, an obscure enough event that it seems like quicksand rather than a firm foundation for a script. There’s a literal third-act descent down the rabbit hole, and this comes after a line earlier that is so on-the-nose that in lesser hands it would cause laughter.

But Peele is not lesser hands, and the home invasion that dominates the middle hour is nerve wracking and taut (in fact, it probably should be taught, too, alongside You’re Next, The Strangers, and Assassination Nation as case studies of how to keep the genre from going stale). If that act is his Assault on Precinct 13 (to revive the Carpenter comparison), then Nyong’o is his Adrienne Barbeau while Duke is his Kurt Russell, all cocksure masculinity undercut by panicky self-doubt and underlined by exquisite comedic timing.

So while it’s true that Peele may well be the new Carpenter (just as he’s trying to fill Rod Serling’s smoke cloud in his revamp of The Twilight Zone), it’s still not unfair to say that his latest metaphorical horror – while far from a sophomore slump – lacks the seamless elegance of his debut. “Not quite matching a masterpiece” is still high praise, but Us is a step forward for Peele the Filmmaker, and a step back for Peele the Storyteller.


Headliners, World Premiere

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SXSW Film 2019, Jordan Peele, Us

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