No genre has experienced a more interesting, or irregular, trajectory than horror has. In a short space of time, it has been synonymous everything from campy B-movies to formulaic blockbusters, only for it to now become associated with quality film-making, thanks partly to a director best known for being funny.
The Wilson family – consisting of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) – are staying at their holiday home in California over the summer, hoping for a well-earned break. Nearby is the seaside town of Santa Cruz where three decades earlier, a younger Adelaide (Madison Curry) experienced a traumatic event that left her unable to speak, and continues to haunt her in the present day.
On just the second night of their stay in California, the Wilsons witness a sinister family of four standing in their driveway, all of whom are wearing red boilersuits and refraining from speaking. Gabe attempts to communicate with the family, but doesn’t receive a response; he then tries to scare them off the property, again to no avail. Eventually, the four miscreants force their way into the holiday home, revealing themselves to be exact lookalikes of the Wilsons.
Us is the second feature-length film to come from comedian Jordan Peele, who only two years ago surpassed everybody’s expectations with his directorial debut Get Out. While many have been eager to compare Peele’s films favourably with each other, it’s important to note that Us is a very different experience to its precursor – where Get Out is a critique on white America’s appropriation of black culture, Us is more clandestine about the ideas it wishes to convey, leaving events open to the viewer’s interpretation.
With that said, Us retains many of the qualities found in Get Out, including its understanding of horror. Peele knows that good horror isn’t about excessive gore, jump-scares or screaming; rather, it’s about building tension, to the point where the audience is left in fear of what might happen next. Making proceedings tenser still is the film’s insubordination to the storytelling tropes of the horror genre, making it difficult to predict the actions of the characters, and their eventual outcomes.
Another hallmark of Get Out making its return is composer Michael Abels, who once again provides an ethereal soundtrack to the story; there are occasions in Us, though, where his compositions become quite loud and defiant – rather than accompany a scene, the music seemingly seeks to be overpowering, which in turn sees events robbed of their grandeur. Nevertheless, the efforts of Abels are impressive and admirable, and may even be worthy of an Oscar nomination.
The same can be said of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis who, like many in the cast and crew, is collaborating with Peele for the first time. Gioulakis’ clean camerawork looks amazing from the very beginning – there’s some gorgeous shots of Adelaide walking through a maze of mirrors in the pre-title sequence – and aids Peele in telling the story visually, rather than via narration or text. His shots are made even more remarkable by the stylish lighting and costuming, which add an element of classiness.
Yet another astonishing aspect of Us – perhaps more than anything – is the acting, with every single performer being sublime. Winston Duke’s role sees him play the chief source of comic relief, effortlessly lightening the mood as the dim-witted Gabe; in fact, all of the actors have great comic timing, ensuring that Us is properly funny. As the lead actress, Nyong’o proves to be the most commendable of all, with her dual performances being raw, freaky, and most certainly deserving of a second Academy Award.
With Us, Jordan Peele has established himself as one of the leading figures in Hollywood. His sophomore outing is destined to be discussed and analysed for many years to come, not just because of its complex themes, but also its cast, music, cinematography and exceptional scares. Truly, this film is history in the making.