It feels impossible to talk about director and writer Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature Us without talking about his debut, Get Out (2017), and that inseparable duality is spookily relevant to the subject matter of his latest film. If Get Out is the sun, Us is its shade – a skinnier, more ambiguous being, the critical and commercial success of its Oscar-nominated predecessor looming overhead. But Us has plenty of its own unique pleasures and successes, and is perhaps only more winning for the mysterious burn marks in its plot and its looser grasp of tone. It might sound naive to posit Peele as the heir to M. Night Shyamalan’s prematurely bestowed Horror Auteur Of The 21st Century title, but Us really does seem to be the Signs (2002) to Get Out’s The Sixth Sense (1999); a less substantial, but often more interesting horror film than its acclaimed older sibling.
Husband and wife Adelaide and Gabe Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, in a mini Black Panther  reunion) drive up to Santa Cruz for a beach holiday with their kids, sulky teen athlete Zora (Shahadi Wright-Joseph) and lil scamp Jason (Evan Alex). We don’t need to know too much about these characters to be grimly delighted when they’re attacked by their scissor-wielding, psychopathic doppelgängers, led by Red (Nyong’o, again). Adelaide’s resentful double speaks in an interrupted rasp somewhere vocally between Buffalo Bill and a recent tracheostomy patient – we know in an instant that she’s deeply broken and deeply dangerous, but the wide reach of her hatred is only made clearer as the film mutates from a chilling home invasion into a The Birds-esque wave of terror without bounds.
The fractured dynamics between the two identical families, and between Adelaide and her own family, are consistently entertaining, so it’s a pity that those clever connections are ultimately not as fleshed out as I might’ve liked. After the movie’s midpoint, Peele focuses more on the rotten umbilical cord connecting Adelaide and Red specifically, at the expense of any opportunity to unpack the relationship between husband and wife, or mother and child. It’s hard to complain when Nyong’o is so staggeringly watchable, though, giving Red a balletic physicality with tortured troglodyte mannerisms.
The entire cast seems to be having fun playing their own shadows, in fact: Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker bring a bit more levity as Gabe and Adelaide’s yuppie neighbours, turning all their bougie posturing from the first act into ghoulish pantomime later. As Peele’s vision expands, some of this character specificity is lost, but still, the director’s ambition should be applauded after the leanness of Get Out’s more geographically limited setting. Here, he’s given a bigger sandbox to play in, using white rabbits, brown fingerless gloves and 1980s memorabilia to almost iconic effect. Peele has toyed with ‘house of mirrors’ imagery before, but avoids homage for the most part, instead forging his own path towards something admirably new.
Us will be the first mainstream horror success that features a core cast of black characters, but the Wilson family’s race doesn’t seem to be the focus of the loony conspiracy theory that unfolds throughout the film. When asked who they are, the bad twins croak back only that they are ‘Americans’, a far broader antagonist than Get Out’s focus on left-wing fetishisation of black identity. It feels a little facile to believe that the film is about ‘the simple fact that we are our own worst enemies’, but the bewildering panache with which this message is brought to life elevates it above its otherwise uncomplicated portrayal of the fictional ‘other’ (here named The Tethered) as good old-fashioned homicidal maniacs. Is it such a bad thing to be uncomplicated? Peele isn’t being shy about his aspirations towards the horror canon, and the monster-making he’s done here can be enjoyed with or without taking a closer look into its social allegory. The Tethered deserve to become go-to Halloween costumes, because they’re cool and scary, and that’s enough for me.
More so than Get Out, Us feels like entirely its own thing. Get Out was rightfully applauded for its originality, but also drew from a long tradition of All-American suburban suspense, like The Twilight Zone (1958-1964) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). In the scale and breadth of its destruction, Us is reminiscent of zombie movies like Dawn of The Dead (1978), or paranoiac societal warnings like Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956), but that’s it: everything else is permeated by a refreshing sense of ambiguity. As the elliptical nature of Us’s world-building begins to raise more and more questions without offering comforting answers, it’s hard to believe that Peele could’ve made this film without first making the more classical Get Out. The chintzy boardwalk funfair setting says it all – the fear Peele crafts in Us is less existential and more straight-up horror, looking to make us squeal and gawp, as opposed to his more elegant, tightly scripted first feature, which is frequently (and reductively) labelled as a thriller.
Us’s final moments feel somewhat telegraphed: After a thrilling climax set to a splintery staccato revamp of I Got Five On It, we’re handed a fairly predictable closing revelation that would’ve been more powerful if left as some nasty little subtext for rewatchers to discover and enjoy. But I can’t imagine too many viewers feeling unfulfilled by the movie’s infrequent lapses in tension or plausibility – with the confidence of his vision, and Nyong’o’s magnetic lead performance, Peele has doubled down on his first grab at being this generation’s master of suspense.
Us is in Australian cinemas from 28 March.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen