Film review | Us: I’m afraid of Americans

Jordan Peele overcomes the sophomore film slump in style with a taut, high-concept thriller that tickles both brain and guts

Double trouble - Lupita Nyong’o is forced to fend off familial doppelgangers in Jordan Peele’s high-wire sophomore effort
Double trouble - Lupita Nyong’o is forced to fend off familial doppelgangers in Jordan Peele’s high-wire sophomore effort

“Who are you?” is an intuitive question to put to a monster, apparent or otherwise, dubious enough of an opportunity as that may be. But Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), the beleaguered matriarch of a family assailed by a quartet who appear to be the malevolent doppelgangers to her own cosy nuclear unit, gets a chance to ask precisely that to her own double.

The answer, arriving in creepily raspy tones from her crazed mirror image, ‘Red’ – who brandishes a weapon while her creepy brood skulk into attack position – is both simple and loaded.

“We’re Americans.”

And so the die is cast of Jordan Peele’s second feature film as a writer-director, arriving on the tail of the barnstorming (and Oscar-winning, for Best Original Screenplay) horror-comedy race-relations satire Get Out (2017). Unspooling as a horror film with a tripartite set of embedded sub-genres in its heady, meaty centre – home invasion, slasher and doppelganger-terror writ large – it hints at deeper truths where Get Out bludgeoned us with its razor sharp message, but makes up for its thematic vagueness with a thoroughly efficient narrative engine.

Just like Get Out skewered the cringe-worthy complacency of white liberal do-gooders with a malevolent twist of the knife, here Peele takes a Hitchcockian stab at middle-class complacency, pushing Adelaide’s cushy family unit – comprising of her bumbling husband Gabe (Winston Duke), budding athlete daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and her young son Jason (Evan Alex) – being plunged into chaos when the doppelgangers show up to ruin their idyllic getaway to a beach house in Santa Cruz.

But this having been the site of a traumatic episode in Adelaide’s past, the trip becomes unsettling enough for her even before the doubles come knocking at the door.

While Get Out was crystal clear in both its plot mechanics and thematic undercurrents – racial tensions that reveal the undercurrents of slavery resurfacing in horrifically complex ways – ‘Us’ sees Peele going for a more ambiguous take on the high-concept horror flick, which means that some viewers will appreciate the call to free interpretation, with others bemoaning the lack of clear-cut answers to some central mysteries.

Regardless of the endgame, however, the run-up leading to it makes for an impeccable ride. As is to be expected from a film by an acclaimed comedian who was secretly a horror geek all the while, the beats are laced with a clear understanding of both terror and humour, the latter of which is deployed not just to deflate tension, but also simply to add to the sheer pleasure of this heady cocktail.

Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss pops in for an extended cameo and relishes the role – in a film about doubles, her own family could be seen as the economically aligned, racially flipped mirror image of our protagonists – and an extended set-piece in her own fancy beach house is likely to be remembered and re-watched with relish by genre fans for years to come.

Because for all its creepy terror, its moments of explicit gore and the unsettling reverberations of its powerful – but not entirely limpid – satirical undercurrents, ‘Us’ remains a film that’s easy to just simply enjoy on many levels, dark-tinged as it may be. Animated by the same dark energy that powers some of our cult favourites from the 1970s or the better films by Quentin Tarantino, it’s an irresistible diamond in the rough that demands to be cherished.

The verdict

More ambitious and tighter than his barnstorming Get Out in equal measure, Jordan Peele’s second stab at film-making may have some rips at its seams, but in the long run makes for a thrilling feature with something to say. Satisfyingly structured and laced with nuggets of ambiguity that will burrow through the brain, it’s offers a full-bodied experience of genre cinema that feels sorely needed in a landscape oversaturated with superheroes and remakes.

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