A masterpiece of identity horror & dark reflection on America’s past with chilly atmospherics, originality in concept, psychological torment + twists, old-world suspense-building, and one of the best scores in modern horror history. 8.8/10.
Plot Synopsis: Santa Cruz, CA. 1986. Accompanied by her husband, son and daughter, Adelaide Wilson returns to the beachfront home where she grew up as a child. Haunted by a traumatic experience from the past, Adelaide grows increasingly concerned that something bad is going to happen. Her worst fears soon become a reality when four masked strangers descend upon the house, forcing the Wilsons into a fight for survival. When the masks come off, the family is horrified to learn that each attacker takes the appearance of one of them.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
Review: A pair of golden scissors. That was all Jordan Peele needed to build hype for his newest nightmare and sophomore follow-up to 2017’s psychological race-fueled horror entry Get Out. And it worked. If Get Out was meant to be an appetizer showing glimpses of skill and greatness the chef was teasing us with for the main course: Us is that five-star dining experience we, and the horror genre, have been starved of and craving for years. A masterpiece of identity horror, racial experience, and dark reflection on America’s past with effectively-chilly atmospherics, unparalleled originality for its time, shocking psychological twists, old-world suspense-building, and one of the best/most innovative orchestral scorings in any Horror film post-2000, perhaps ever – Peele has officially, declaratively established himself as one of the most exciting new directorial talents in the game.
Let’s start with the score since it is so *unbelievably* good. Since I first heard that spooky, slowed concerto remix of Luniz’s ‘5 On It’ in the trailers and Peele’s motivations/classics he wanted to pay homage to – from Psycho to Jaws to The Shining to The Babadook to It Follows, I knew this was going to be something special and different. From its staccato-plucked orchestral themes rife with jarring string aggressions reminiscent of Psycho and Jaws’ iconic game-changers stylistically to soft-balanced, airy quartet melodies discordantly happy-go-lucky and sweepingly Shining/It Follows-like, plus everything in the middle from tribal drums to hip-hop, the score is breathtakingly original. It might not only be one of the best, most culturally-authentic, auterist scorings I’ve heard in a horror film post-2000; it might be one of the best and most diverse/skillful/suspenseful scores I’ve ever heard in a horror film. It’s THAT good.
The score echoes the darkness and effectively-chilly atmospherics in Us’ visuals, location settings, and concept. The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis is incredible, with strong compositionally-creative shots and camerawork from jump cuts to trackers that will make you double-take several times on occasion at the old-world cinematic craftsmanship on display. The location setting is equally phenomenal, lifting a long-unused setting just ripe with horror potential I’m not sure why hasn’t been explored more in the genre: the carnival. From its opening scene in the downright-creepy funhouse amidst disorientating mirrors and blue-hued, white-knuckled heart-pounding suspense (that feels positively Hitchcockian in some scenes), you are in for a thrill ride of atmospheric terror that keeps up its psychological macabre and identity crisis until the final reveal/plot twist. The concept is breathtakingly original & brilliant: what could be scarier than a dark reflection or evil shadow of ourselves out to get us – a literal personification/amplification of our demons hunting us down in the most brutal of ways with scissors? Beyond that, it has a lot to say about race, faith, thanksgiving, and the juxtaposition of haves/have-nots too: how there are people suffering (across cultures) who would kill for the scraps of more privileged folks not even thankful for what they have. Just like in Get Out, Peele’s penchant for bringing back imagination and original flair to a horror genre plagued by endless seas of slasher reboots and 10th sequels is extremely welcomed by any cinephile (and feels almost time-machine like in nostalgic high.)
The performances and plot structure. Lupita Nyong’o delivers one of the strongest performances of her already-illustrious career as Adelaide/Red, showing serious acting chops and range being able to play both far-spectrum ends of personality so believably (and, at times, simultaneously). It gets into even physical and primordial emotive-power dynamism, with natural-feeling authentic reactions to the psychologically-disturbing macabre unfolding before her very eyes, marked by serious skill being able to twist her voice into a strained echo and her persona so vividly – truly haunting & wild. Beyond her inimitable lead performance, there is not a weak link in any other supporting performance either – especially young scared Adelaide in that fateful stormy night at the funhouse, Winston Duke’s hilarious comic-relief Gabe bringing serious Rod-dèja-vu to Get Out, and the Tethers displaying terrorizing skill to be able to play two drastically-different, worlds-apart versions of yourself so convincingly acting-wise. The shrewd two-way reciprocal plot structure also hits high notes unraveling the mystery and story while getting crazier at every turn, as we’re immaculately guided from its opening night’s cliffhanger to modern day & back full-circle before it all finally converges in that epic finale.
Finally, the plot twist. One of the most shocking and brilliantly-executed turns I’ve ever seen in modern horror, the final reveal and subversion elevates Us into masterwork-level. Without revealing, every expectation we had and are conditioned to have by the laws of storytelling and film conventions are turned on their heads, as we learned the narrator of the story has a dark secret to tell. We are presented with whom we instantly infer are the good guys, but this rewrite and characterization is a lot more complex than it seems – while steeped in multi-interpretive symbolism. It directly parallels and alludes to the horrors and dark history/acts of America – like the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, sexism, and racism the waves of which are all still felt by affected populations to this day. Tried to be forgotten or covered-up by perpetrators like Adelaide’s PTSD-masking stuffing-down of what really happened that night at the carnival, victims are not always that fortunate – sometimes never being able to just move on as trapped by the system as tethers underground. This extremely thought-provoking ideology and brilliant glimpse into the have-nots’ experience & perception, while working in identity horror bolstered by intense symbolic easter eggs likewise meriting discussion – like pure white rabbits’ mysticism and beauty wastefully eaten bloody for sustenance, Jeremiah 11:11, the location being hidden underground, and brutality of scissors – becoming characteristic of Peele’s films in extremely refreshing fashion. Sometimes, sins of our past and our inner demons can (quite literally in this case) come back to haunt us. Incredible.
Minor flaws in Us include sometimes falling into the ‘MCU-trap’ as colloquially known in film circles – injecting jarring, sometimes ill-timed or silly humor into serious situations (worse here since it’s a horror film that should be focused more on scares than silly Tether sounds and Gabe’s jokes). The government experimentation angle could have used a bit more fleshing out and development – why did they do it? what was the purpose/plan? how? why was it never heard of? why’d they not have a back-up plan? etc. Although the inclusion to have it be a U.S. Gov’t operation is brilliant once again shining criticizing light on the country’s treatment of some minorities and groups across its dark history, it deserved far more exposition.
Overall, Us is absolutely brilliant film. A masterstroke of identity horror, racial experience, and dark reflection on America’s past with effectively-chilly atmospherics, unparalleled originality for its time, shocking psychological twists, old-world suspense-building, and one of the best/most innovative orchestral scorings in any Horror film post-2000, Peele has further established himself as one of the most provocative new directorial talents in the game with this sophomore tour-de-force steeped in fresh, dark imagination & sociological injustice. Bravo.
Official CLC Score: 8.8/10