There’s a saying that’s been kicked around a lot over the last 60 years or so, that traces back to Ian Fleming’s novel, “Goldfinger.” It’s a basic Rule-of-Threes that states, “Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Three times is an an enemy action.” The more modern paraphrasing is to say, “Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern.”
I bring this up as a basic thesis for the suspense and horror films of comedian Jordan Peele. His first film, Get Out, which won him the Oscar for Original Screenplay, is hands down the best of its genre this decade. And now that his follow-up, Us, is out, I can safely say that one more great horror film, and we can officially call it a pattern, and start putting Peele in the discussion alongside Hitchcock, Carpenter, Craven, Argento, Romero, and all the other masters of genre. Because with Us, he’s 2-for-2, and really, calling it a coincidence is more hedging my bets for the sake of the rhetorical argument.
There is no such thing as a sophomore slump with Peele, who once again shows us that, just as in Get Out, he can expertly craft a scene and narrative, bring us compelling characters with a unique take on their own personal terror, and still make the audience geek out over his referential deference to the past masters. I will say that Us isn’t quite as great as Get Out, but really, that’s like saying a delicious slice of pie could only be made more delicious with a scoop of ice cream on top.
Peele immediately draws you in with an unorthodox setup, as young Adelaide (the wonderful Lupita Nyong’o in adult form) watches a news report for the upcoming nationwide goodwill event, “Hands Across America.” I remember being two of those hands when I was four years old. I had no idea what it was about at the time; my mom just dragged me out to a line where we all held hands and swayed. I recall not having proper balance at the time, and I fell over a lot, scraping my knees. None of this has any bearing on the plot. I just feel old.
Anyway, the event is an interesting way to establish us as beginning in the year 1986. In Santa Cruz, Adelaide’s family goes to the local boardwalk, where the young girl gets separated from her parents. She wanders into a fun house, where Peele is just giddy to play with the perspectives in a hall of mirrors. There, Adelaide runs into a double of herself, which scares her into a near catatonic state of silence.
Fast forward to the present, and Adelaide is now a married woman with two kids. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), is excited to go back to Adelaide’s old lake house summer home in Santa Cruz, as it’s the first time they’ve been able to visit since Adelaide’s mother passed away, and he’s eager to be the “cool dad” with a new motorboat to show off to their upper-class neighbors, Kitty and Josh (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, respectively). Their kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), are less than enthusiastic. Zora is your typical bored teenager, while Jason is a bit odd and antisocial.
The family heads down to the beach despite Adelaide’s objections, as she’s still uneasy about even being near the boardwalk, which isn’t helped by the sight of a dead homeless man on the way. Never mind the coincidence that it is the same homeless man (holding a cardboard sign promoting the biblical verse, Jeremiah 11:11, which I’ll just say is not “make a wish”) that Adelaide passed as a child on the way to the fateful fun house, it’s safe to say she’s sufficiently on edge. At the beach, Jason wanders off after a trip to the bathroom and encounters a man standing alone on the beach with his hands out at his sides. He wears a drab coat, a red jumpsuit, and his hands appear to be covered in blood. That’s more than enough of a scare for Adelaide, and so the family heads back to the lake house.
And now things get real fun. Later that night, the family is startled by the sudden appearance of another family in their driveway. After Gabe attempts to drive them away, the group splits up and invades the home, cornering the family in the living room. It is then that they reveal themselves as doppelgängers to the entire family. The mother, Red, is the only one who can speak, though she does so in a hoarse, hollow voice that is just creepily magical every time Nyong’o opens her mouth. She tells the harrowing story of being Adelaide’s shadow, forced to mimic her life underground, including marrying the brutish “Abraham,” and giving birth to the manic “Umbrae,” complete with a devilish smile, and the feral pyromaniac “Pluto,” who hides his face with a rubber mask. Red wants to liberate “The Tethered” as she calls her people, taking their rightful place on the surface world. But most importantly, she wants to take her time disposing of Adelaide and her family.
The family splits up, beginning a survival horror game for the ages, filled with gory kills (the Tethered use sharp golden scissors as their main weaponry), thrilling chase and fight scenes, and some top notch comic relief dialogue. For example, as the family makes their escape, Zora insists that she should be the one to drive because she claims to have the highest kill count in the family. As they fight and flee, they come to see that the Tethered are all on a mission to kill their overworld counterparts. Once they do, they fall into a great line, almost like trained drones. The more doppelgängers there are, the more people die, and the larger the line and threat becomes.
As before, Peele knows how to set a scene with the best of them. The hall of mirrors is just the first major one (there’s even an in-joke about political correctness in the funhouse itself, as in 1986 it was called “Vision Quest” and had an Indian chief as the mascot, whereas in the modern day it’s a wizard and it’s now called “Merlin’s Forest”). A showdown with Kitty and Josh’s doubles in their house is a masterful bit of set design and utility of space. The tiny compartments where Jason hides both before and during the attack are expert examples of claustrophobic filming. Red describes the diet of the Tethered, which consists entirely of rabbits, which retroactively makes the opening credits scene of a slow zoom out on what appears to be a classroom with a wall lined with rabbit cages super unsettling. The list goes on and on.
And of course, there are references to beat the band. In the opening scene, as Adelaide watches the commercial for “Hands Across America,” there are VHS copies of The Goonies and C.H.U.D. on a shelf next to the television, a hint at the subterranean nature of the stalkers. The lush green scenery that bookends the film seems like a clear nod to The Shining. Even the idea of holding a family hostage in their own home for systematic torture and murder recalls the brilliant European surreal thriller, Funny Games (which sadly got a terrible Americanized remake a few years back). It’s half the fun of watching Jordan Peele’s films. Not only does he know what he’s doing, he also knows exactly who to thank for his inspiration.
I will say that the ending twist was fairly predictable, but all the same, getting there was a hell of a ride. Lupita Nyong’o shines in a way only she can, and there’s so much good gore and fucked up imagery in service to a really well assembled and executed story. To me, this is what Hereditary COULD have been when it came out last year. It too had great gore and a stellar leading performance from the family matriarch (in this case Toni Collette), but all of that came at the expense of a cogent plot that didn’t even follow its own rules. Here, the supernatural elements are obviously absurd, and some of the moments that are there just for scares would never happen (for example, no ambulance would ever cart around an uncovered dead body in broad daylight). But as Peele builds his world, he sticks to the very rules he creates, and once again, he’s able to lean into the tropes and conventions of the genre while at the same time subverting our expectations. I mean, who would ever think that “Hands Across America” could be legitimately scary?
Jordan fucking Peele, that’s who.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are horror films improving overall, or is it just Peele? Is there a cooler song to set a fight scene to than “Fuck Tha Police”? Let me know!