It’s not all that unusual for a filmmaker to establish themself as a vibrant new voice within their first couple of features. But I can’t think of another recent instance in which a creator who was already a known quantity in the entertainment field turned to directing and so thoroughly transformed the entire perception of their abilities and sensibility as Jordan Peele has done. It’s been only two years since Get Out, his feature debut as a writer and director, became nothing short of a sensation, and yet it already feels like he’s practically a brand unto himself, like Steven Spielberg at his commercial peak or Wes Anderson as a creator. In offering that observation, I’ll add that Peele’s commitment thus far to a preferred genre (extended to a notable new streaming venture) is the least of what defines his piercing individualism. Instead, it’s the confidence embedded in Peele’s craft that makes his emergence as a cinematic force so thrilling.
Peele’s second film, Us, is even more ambitious than its predecessor. A fierce thematic focus has been supplanted by a sprawl of social commentary, making the new effort trickier to pin down. As in Get Out, the trouble is reached via road trip. A family headed by Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) journeys to Santa Cruz for a family vacation. The couple’s two children, teenage Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger Jason (Evan Alex), meet the annual excursion to the family lake house with typical grouchy indifference. There’s little reason to believe the vacation promises anything more dire than an occasional squabble. But Adelaide has a secret past, and one night it comes calling with faces that are familiar, but unsettlingly askew. And scissors. There are some very sharp-looking scissors.
The title Us — and its similarity to U.S. — signals that Peele is again binding social commentary to his chill-inducing story. The sheer breadth of the subtextual editorializing sometimes grows vaster than the film can reasonably contain. It really seems as if Peele is settling for no less than commentary on every caustic element of the national character, encompassing a teeming mass of contradictions into a single booming narrative. The film is dazzling in its ambition and occasionally mildly confusing in its execution, especially when the film pushes to some final twists which are substantiated without being wholly convincing or satisfying. Peele is spinning his story so fast and furiously that it sometimes gets a little dizzy.
Even if the tale slips toward the unwieldy, Peele’s directorial craft is consistently exemplary. He has a striking visual sense that’s especially welcome in a horror film, where the plain facts of where characters physically reside in a scene are crucial. And he knows to give the actors the authority to carry the emotional impact. It’s much easier to rely on a thesis like that when the talent of Nyong’o is at the center of the film. Even before the script gifts her with a literally doubling up of characteristics to play, Nyong’o is marvelous, bringing a deep humanity and flinty charisma to the performance.
If Us isn’t quite the knockout that Get Out was, it similarly unfolds with fascinating layers and invites full-hearted admiration of everything it gets perfectly right. And like the earlier film, I suspect it will only grow stronger as time passes. As Us settles into the memory, its imperfections start to look beautiful, too.