Us review – Jordan Peele's brash and brilliant beach holiday horror

Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is a superb doppelganger satire of the American dream, with Lupita Nyong’o delivering a magnificent performance

An almost erotic surge of dread powers this brash and spectacular new horror-comedy from Jordan Peele, right from its ineffably creepy opening. It’s a satirical doppelganger nightmare of the American way, a horrified double-take in the mirror of certainty, a realisation that the corroborative image of happiness and prosperity you hoped to see has turned its back, like something by Magritte. And though this doesn’t quite have the same lethal narrative discipline of Peele’s debut masterpiece Get Out, with its drum-tight clarity and control, what it certainly does have is a magnificent lead performance from Lupita Nyong’o, who brings to it a basilisk stare of horror. The musical score by Michael Abels has the same disturbing “Satan spiritual” feel of his compositions for Get Out.

This is a Twilight Zone chiller with something of John Frankenheimer or George A Romero. It opens with a playful borrowing from the spirit and the letter of Spielberg’s Jaws and there’s a horribly prescient invocation of Michael Jackson. The title is of course ambiguous: meaning either the snugly inclusive “us” or the US itself. (An RSC group-devised play about Vietnam in 1966 directed by Peter Brook had the same title and the same double-edged meaning.)

Nyong’o plays Adelaide, who with her genial, good-natured husband Gabe (Winston Duke) is taking the kids for a summer lakehouse vacation: this is Zora and younger brother Jason, in which roles Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are both excellent. The family is in a handsomely appointed cabin, which they have stayed in before, but Gabe is discontented. He wants to drive a little further down to the coast for some old-fashioned family time at the beach. Adelaide is not so sure. It was at this very beach resort that she had a horrible experience when she was a child – in 1986, the Reaganite era of the optimistic Hands Across America charity campaign. While with her parents at the funfair, right after her dad had won her a Michael Jackson T-shirt, little Adelaide had wandered off on her own and had a terrible ordeal. Now, as an adult, she is terrified of her own children straying from her and being “taken”. And she has cause to remember a sickening detail: a strange man on the pier holding a sign with the biblical reference – Jeremiah 11:11.

The traumatised memory has stayed with her, although she has never spoken about it, and being back at this cursed place makes her jittery and on edge. On the beach, they are reunited with a somewhat jaded white couple, the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), who annoy Gabe by showing off about being just that little bit richer. Their cabin is flashier, his car is a cooler model than Gabe’s and their rented boat seems in better shape. (Gabe’s is called “Craw Daddy”; the Tylers’ is toe-curlingly called “B’Yacht’ch”.) And so Adelaide and Gabe’s compromised family happiness, with its tingling undertow of material and personal disquiet, is shattered one night when they see a group of four people standing in their driveway, a group which seems eerily familiar.

Impostor syndrome is something that afflicts people who have fought their way up to a position of some prestige, while never quite being able to suppress the feeling that they don’t deserve it, that they are just fakes, and that they are taking up a space that should be filled by someone more deserving. Is that partly what Us is about: a whole nation of people who each feel a shadow of historical rebuke behind them? Or perhaps the impostors are coming back to grab everything back, having just been deposed? The demonic invaders seem to be attacking from below and at the height of the horror and mayhem, Gabe and Adelaide briefly discuss the possibility of escaping to Mexico, before deciding they are much better off where they are. Perhaps if America was in dispute with Canada, we would be getting a zeitgeisty horror-thriller about Americans getting attacked from above.

Yet perhaps these lines of interpretation are beside the point and what is important is the attack from within. It leads to uproarious scenes of chaos, as Gabe shouts to the invaders: “If you wanna get crazy, we can get crazy” – and crazy is certainly what they get, especially in the outrageous fight scene, which makes shrewd use of the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and NWA’s Fuck tha Police.

The fiercely charismatic, mesmeric gaze of Lupita Nyong’o holds the movie together, and I have to say that without her presence, the movie’s final spasm of anarchic weirdness might have lost its grip. She radiates a force-field of pure defiance.

• This article was amended on 20 and 23 March 2019 to correct a character’s name: an earlier version referred to the character Zora “and her younger brother Pluto”. Her brother’s name is Jason; Pluto is the name of his doppelganger.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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