Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut Get Out redefined what a modern horror movie could be. It was slick and smart and terrifying, its body-horror a twisted allegory for the racism – casual and otherwise – suffered by black people.
And for a long time, I was pretty sure this follow-up was addressing the same issue, albeit from a starkly different angle. It begins at a kitschy 1980s fairground, where a young black family bicker as they play carnival games. The daughter wanders off into a decidedly unofficial-looking house of horrors, panicking as she gets trapped in a hall of mirrors. Only one of the reflections doesn’t seem to be moving when she does…
Cut forward 20 years and that girl now has a family of her own, with whom she once again sets off for a seaside getaway. With all that foreshadowing, what could possibly go wrong? Loads, it turns out. Heaps. It’s basically the worst holiday ever, getting exponentially more terrible with every creepy shadow hiding in the undergrowth and feral child scuttling around like a demonic spider.
The first inkling that something is amiss is when, at night of course, the family spot four sinister figures standing in their driveway. They don’t seem inclined to budge, even when threatened – albeit halfheartedly – with a baseball bat. But on closer inspection the jump-suited intruders look just like… well, them. Only dirtier, and a bit like they’ve been on the crystal meth. The doppelgängers attack, but seem incapable of speech, gurgling gutturally and panting like animals.
At this point Peele seems to be commenting on the disparity between the way black families actually are – in this case well educated and a bit dweeby – and the monstrous, violent vision presented by the media.
The first two thirds of his film is a taut home invasion thriller along the lines of The Strangers, with the “shadow” family attempting to systematically murder Adelaide (a brilliant Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (an often hilarious Winston Duke) and their two children, plus their obnoxious white neighbours.
It’s darkly beautiful, unsurprising given Peele’s debut was one of the most visually innovative horror movies since Under the Skin. There’s also a nod to classic The Twilight Zone episodes; again hardly surprising given he’s directed a soon-to-be-released season of the show for CBS. But there’s also an overtly surreal tone to the proceedings, with repeated shots of white rabbits and cryptic mentions of disused underground tunnels.
Just when you think you’ve got a grip on things, Peele pans back, vastly broadening the scope of his social commentary, framing the film not as just an allegory for racism, but one about money versus poverty, haves versus have nots. Quite how he goes about this I won’t reveal for fear of spoiling a pretty astonishing reveal. This dramatic shift of pace does, however, make Us (as in us vs them, as well as “United States”) rather more sprawling and unfocused than his previous work, with some of the later scenes leaving you at once scratching your head and marvelling at Peele’s visual storytelling.
Anyway, when you’re this good a filmmaker, you can afford to take a few liberties. Us is gripping throughout, frightening as the best horror can be, with a wicked seam of pitch-dark humour and a social commentary Ken Loach would be proud of. It’s another devastatingly brilliant movie from one of the hottest mainstream directors working today.