It’s rare that the opening night selection of a film festival is the one that you’re the most excited to see, but that’s just what happens when you decide to open SXSW 2019 with Jordan Peele’s Us. One of the first films I reviewed for this site was Get Out, and I called that film a masterpiece. An Oscar win and a boatload of cash later, it’s become a beloved part of our culture, held in the same esteem two years after its premiere by genre heads and the general movie-going public. So if that’s the case, and I think Us is about as good, if not better, does it deserve that highly-coveted label? Yeah, I think so. And to spare us both the anger over spoilers, all I’ll say about the plot is this: A family (Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex) on vacation on the California coast discovers their doppelgängers staring at them from their driveway, and they might not have the best of intentions. Seriously, go somewhere else if you want spoilers. I wouldn’t want to ruin this for my worst enemy.
Us is a bit longer and shaggier than Get Out, which is understandable given that the latter is an impossibly tight movie if there ever was one, but it serves a purpose: We spend so much time with our leads that we organically absorb their routines, their tics, their style. And when that is reflected back to us in the form of those red-suited menaces, it’s as if we’re staring into a funhouse mirror: It’s the same, but distorted and ugly, contorted into with a kind of menace, as if you were imagining your worst qualities standing in front of you. Each member of the ensemble does fantastic work — it’s hard enough playing one part in a movie, not to mention a second that’s essentially one’s id — but no member of the cast is as astonishing as Nyong’o, whom horror fans should be grateful towards for leaning into the genre in the past year. Her work as both matriarchs borders on the sublime, and there are moments in which she commands the attention of every single eyeball in the room. Seriously, if you thought Toni Collette was good in Hereditary, see this. It’s on par, or dare I say it, better than that performance.
Duke is brilliant as her comedic foil, as her husband is a consummate goofball who never fails to break the tension in the more terrifying moments throughout. If I had to compare the humor in this film to another, I’d liken it to Poltergeist, another film where the family dynamic is so essential to everything about it. The mood will change on the drop of a dime — there’ll be pants-shitting tension in one scene, and in the next instant you’re rolling in the aisles with laughter — but it’s not an issue of inconsistency so much as it is watching a virtuoso skillfully work every single one of your emotions. Peele has grown as a director, which is shocking to say: Every aspect of the film feels heightened from Get Out: The sound design, so essential to that film, is on a whole other level; the cinematography (handsomely shot by Mike Gioulakis, who lensed Glass and It Follows) is captivating, the scares deeper, the laughs better. If there’s one thing Peele has always been brilliant at, whether as a comedian or a director, it’s giving the people what they want, and you will have an absolute blast during this.
The one area in which Us can’t compete with it on first blush is the script, and some viewers will inevitably think that this lacks his previous work’s relevance and/or punch. Indeed, it doesn’t pack the same punch, but a) that’s partially by design, and b) few things would, honestly. Get Out was the essential film for its particular moment and is still a modern classic today, and the director has made something even more relevant in these apocalyptic times, eschewing the “social thriller” label entirely.
Peele has made himself an unmistakable and undeniable horror film, though that’s not to say that there’s not some level of social commentary in the film (it wouldn’t be horror if there wasn’t, after all). There will be plenty to say in the coming weeks when we don’t have to talk around the film’s twists and turns, after the run on red jumpsuits for Halloween costumes and the inevitable memeing of some of the scenes, and when I don’t have to talk around the film’s twists in order to tell you that you should get your tickets for opening night right about now. But the craft itself is undeniable and worth focusing on for the moment: Us is a tremendous accomplishment, and Peele is well on his way to joining the all-timer horror pantheon alongside names like Romero, Craven, and Carpenter.