Garth Marenghi — author, dreamweaver, visionary, plus actor — once said that subtext is for cowards. Lord knows what he’d make of Jordan Peele’s Us. The comedian-turned-director’s second film is, like his first, Get Out, dripping with hidden meaning. It’s a symbologist’s wet dream, with subtext all over the shop. Many great horror directors/cowards, from Cronenberg to Romero, have had something to say about the state of the world. Two films in, and the evidence is mounting that we can count Peele among them — and, luckily for him, the world has rarely been in such a state.
As with Get Out, a thrilling tale of survival horror which also had cogent things to say about the African-American experience, Us is a thrilling tale of survival horror which has cogent things to say about the American experience, duality, and the apathy of privilege. Yet the key is that the subtext never overwhelms the text. It’s the scares and the character work that take centre stage from the opening scene, which tracks a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) as she goes for an unsupervised walk along a suddenly sinister Santa Cruz boardwalk. Here, and later, Peele shows a masterful control of framing and tone that would please John Carpenter, just one of the directors whose work — weirdly, Prince Of Darkness most prominently — is homaged throughout.
Not as small and perfectly formed as Get Out, but more than makes up for that in ambition.
What happens on that boardwalk informs the paranoia and dread of the grown-up Adelaide when she returns to Santa Cruz with her family years later. You probably know by now that her paranoia is justified, as she and her family are attacked in their home by doppelgängers. Creepy, red-dungaree-wearing, scissors-wielding doppelgängers.
Who they are and where they come from is one of the many surprises to be discovered. And once they show up, Peele ramps things up a notch or ten, opening up the scope of what initially seems like a riff on home-invasion movies in unexpected ways, and neatly handling the tension as he intercuts between various family members and their terror twin travails. Pleasingly, as things get weirder (and they get very, very weird), Peele’s former life as a comedian also occasionally peeks through to reduce the tension.
While it may not be as small and perfectly formed as Get Out, it more than makes up for that in ambition. Yet none of that ambition would be worth a fig without the four — well, eight — incredible central performances. Duke, proving his Black Panther scene-stealing was no fluke, is hugely relatable as the goofy dad Gabe, and imposing as the hulking Abraham. Shahadi Wright Joseph’s insidious smile as daughter Zora’s evil other will haunt your dreams. But Nyong’o is the standout, both as the seemingly assured all-American mom, Adelaide, and the zombie-like Red, with her intense stare and nails-down-a-blackboard rasp.
It’s all, ultimately, proof that Get Out was not a one-off; the horror pantheon can officially, welcome its newest member, Jordan Peele — director, dreamweaver, visionary, plus actor. And, most assuredly, not a coward.