It’s time for the Wilson family to get a little beach vacation in Santa Cruz. The four members of this family, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), who serve as the protagonists of Us, are simply looking for a little bit of R&R in their beach house even as Adelaide grapples with this unyielding feeling of despair that Santa Cruz brings out in her. But everything changes when a seemingly ordinary evening is interrupted by the arrival of four strangers in their driveway. It isn’t long before it’s revealed that these strangers are actually far more familiar than expected, they’re doppelgangers of the four family members known as The Tethered. Led by a version of Adelaide known as Red (also played by Lupita Nyong’o), these doubles are set on one thing and one thing only: killing the Wilsons.
Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his directorial debut Get Out is a cleverly conceived heightened twist on the home invasion thriller and a brilliantly executed take on this subgenre at that. Another chilling achievement from Jordan Peele, perhaps the most exemplary aspect of Us is how little it reminds one of Get Out. Goodness knows that there are far worse movies to imitate than something as outstanding as Get Out but Us is very much a different creation than that 2017 horror film. Among the numerous pronounced differences between the two films, Us is both more gruesome in its on-screen carnage as well as slightly more humorous than Get Out while the visual elements in Us have a more stylized sensibility than that earlier Peele effort, particularly in the costume design.
Costume designer Kym Barrett is responsible that part of Us and she does exemplary work in her clear total devotion to the distinctive and bold looking outfits adorned by the antagonistic doppelgangers The Tethered. The default outfit for these individuals that includes red robes and golden scissors should, in theory, make these characters look members of a cult dedicated to intense scrapbooking, but instead, their attire properly conveys a menacing ambiance through how heavily it deviates from the default slasher movie villain attire. For one thing, The Tethered wear brightly colored outfits, not the raggedy clothes or darkly colored cloaks Jason Vorhees or Ghostface slaughter people in. For another, all but one of the Tethered versions of our main characters don’t wear masks, their faces are on full display for the world to see.
There’s something so quietly eerie about how the Tethered versions of the protagonists just commit vicious acts of violence without even an attempt to mask who they are while also wearing boldly colored robes that could easily attract the eye. Kym Barrett’s costumes that embrace the individual identities of these dopplegangers stand as a stark contrast to the typical slasher movie or home invasion movie foe wardrobe that tries to conceal a character’s identity as much as possible. This dissimilitude from the norm is one that’s communicated incredibly subtly, in fact, it was only when sitting down to write this review that I realized that there was at least two paragraphs of subtext to be written about Kym Barrett’s costume work on Us!
While watching the movie itself, though, the costume design still managed to stand out as an exceptionally evocative choice, with the aforementioned subtext that occurred to me after viewing Us heightening my appreciation of the costumes rather than being the sole inspiration for it. As a matter of fact, Us as a film is just like its costume designs in how much it impresses you both while you’re watching it and in your contemplating of it after seeing it. There’s so much to unpack here in this surprisingly dense narrative, but Jordan Peele’s screenplay ensures that Us never gets too bogged down in extraneous mythos or superfluous subplots, this is a movie that can work as gloriously terrifying filmmaking even if all the subtext goes over one’s head.
In fact, there’s an elegant simplicity to the numerous marvelously chilling sequences that boil down the confrontations between the Wilson family and their doppelgangers as fights for one’s survival. There isn’t a long-term plan in Adelaide’s mind for how to evade her adversaries, she just deals with whatever horrifying situation is in front of her, an approach that leads to some mighty intense sequences that benefit greatly from the showstopper lead performance given by Lupita Nyong’o. Tasked with playing two versions of the same character, Nyong’o is absolutely remarkable in her performance as she earns audience empathy from her very first scene as Adelaide while also sending a shiver down one’s spine in her turn as the Tethered version of Adelaide.
This doppelganger character is another instance of a bold creative decision coming into play as Nyong’o has the character speaking in a raspy voice akin to a water-deprived SpongeBob’s voice when he first visited Sandy’s tree-dome. A few snickers greeted the introduction of this voice in my screening but only a minute into this performance, nobody was laughing anymore. Nyong’o imbues this distinct voice with such a haunting sense of assured authority that it immediately sent anybody who initially chuckled at her vocals scurrying under their seats. That voice is one of the most memorable parts of just one of the two equally harrowing performances Nyong’o delivers with such effortless skill in Us.
Playing off Nyong’o in a number of early scenes is Winston Duke as her husband Gabe and it’s an utter delight to see Duke go from his confident warrior character in Black Panther to the epitome of uncool awkward suburban dad in Us. Winston Duke has clearly got some remarkable range as a performer that benefits his work as Gabe greatly, particularly in his stellar comedic delivery of his numerous humorous lines. Don’t worry, none of his comedy detracts from the chilling atmosphere of Us, this is constantly a terrifying movie that only gets more haunting the more one thinks on it. It’s a pity the Wilson’s beach vacation was nowhere near as soothing as they hoped it would be but at least their vacation resulted in another magnificent horror film from director Jordan Peele.