There is a passage in Stephen King’s Misery in which the protagonist, a best-selling novelist who is to some extent a double for King himself, explains the difference between Getting an Idea and Trying to Have an Idea. It’s the difference between inspiration and perspiration; between a concept so ingenious it all but writes itself and the more exhaustive process of chipping away at a big chunk of creative block until it resembles something else.
I thought about these distinctions while watching Jordan Peele’s new thriller Us, which feels very much like the work of a filmmaker Trying to Have an Idea, or, more specifically, trying to have an idea as good as his last one. With Get Out, the director hit upon a premise so simple and audacious that the movie attached to it proceeded immediately into the canon. It’s not just that Peele came up with the metaphor of the Sunken Place, but that he seemed to be operating from somewhere equally deep and primal, channeling something oceanic from the collective unconscious and distilling it through a fine-grained filter of comedy and social commentary. Get Out wasn’t flawless, but it was major; in its best moments, it made viewers feel the helpless, bottomless undertow of a nightmare.
Us is a more skillful and technically virtuosic piece of work than Get Out, which was thriftily produced around its priceless high concept. Emboldened by a dizzyingly high return on investment and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Peele now gives off the signs of an artist feeling himself. His increased command of horror-movie rhythms and conventions is supplemented by a greater willingness to mess with them. He continues to demonstrate a knack for integrating shock and humor; he understands that one can heighten the other. And yet for all of its choked, breathless atmosphere, satisfyingly gratuitous gore, and strategically deployed symbolism—a dense weave including ominous Bible verses, Hands Across America, creepy carnival rides, enigmatic rabbits, and insinuating vintage hip-hop cues (the Luniz revival starts here)—the film never achieves the startling dramatic or thematic clarity of its predecessor. The best horror movies impart a sense of reality shedding its skin to reveal what lies beneath. With Us, it’s as if Peele is determined to keep adding layers instead of stripping them away.
By now, you probably know the basic setup of Us, which is about a fateful family trip to a seaside holiday town—or actually, in the spirit of the film’s obsession with doubling, two trips, 30 years apart. What links them is the presence of Adelaide, played as a child by Madison Curry and as a grown-up by Lupita Nyong’o; the adult incarnation has more screen time, but the film’s power and tension derives from the impression left by the younger version. In a superbly scary prologue that lowers the temperature even on Get Out’s chilling cold open, we see Adelaide wander away from her parents on a Santa Cruz boardwalk and enter a hall of mirrors, where she encounters something uncanny amid the panoply of distorted reflections: a doppelganger trapped behind (or is it within?) the glass.
Here, Peele takes several well-worn clichés—a dark, deserted house, an isolated child, an evil twin—and exploits them for maximum effect while still cultivating a sense of mystery. Not only are we left in the dark (literally) about what, exactly, happens to Adelaide, the why is left hanging as well, and not just for the audience. More than 30 years later, she’s equally haunted by the memory and unsure of its meaning, internalizing her anxiety and keeping it secret from her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), high-school-age daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son, Jason (Evan Alex). Returning to the scene of the crime—or whatever it is that happened—as a wife and mother, she reverts to the tentative, wide-eyed demeanor of a frightened child. We wonder whether we’re watching a story about a woman at the mercy of her own trauma and whether whatever she’s got bottled up inside is about to come bursting to the surface in a dangerous way.
It does and it doesn’t: Adelaide isn’t the monster lurking in the shadows outside their cottage, but at the same time, she is. Given what the film’s trailers show, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that, approximately half an hour into Us, the main characters are confronted with bizarro versions of themselves, clad—Don’t Look Now–style—in institutional red jumpsuits and seemingly determined to terrorize, torture, murder, and supplant their opposite numbers. The extended set piece in which the doubles first appear conjures memories of other home-invasion thrillers from The Strangers to Funny Games, yet we’re still fully discombobulated, both by how quickly the film seems to be revealing its gimmick and the outrageousness of Nyong’o’s second performance as Adelaide’s opposite number, all quick, feral movements and dead-eyed stares, topped off by a voice that turns every line of dialogue into a strained incantation. The situation is visually arresting, psychologically unsettling, and completely surreal, and then Peele tries to lower the boom. “Who are you people?” asks Gabe. “We are Americans,” replies the other Adelaide, who’s known as Red, and we’re off to the races, allegorically speaking.
You don’t have to be a clever film critic to note the double entendre of the film’s title, in which Us can easily be reworked into “U.S.,” and you don’t have to follow that particular trail of semiotic bread crumbs to enjoy a movie that, from that moment forward, plays out, on the most basic level, as a straightforward and satisfying jolt machine, with our heroes battling their doubles while also gradually coming to terms with a larger catastrophe unfolding across the entire community. “Us is a horror movie,” Peele tweeted a few weeks ago, kidding the controversy over Get Out’s scoring Golden Globe nominations in the Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy category while also trying to get out ahead of reviewers who might try to elevate his movie into something more pretentious than that. PR-wise, it was a good move, but if critics or audiences end up overthinking Us instead of just enjoying it, it’s only because they’re following Peele’s lead, starting with that short, blunt line of dialogue, which instantly shifts the film’s emphasis from the personal to the political, suggesting a country divided between its everyday citizenry and a shadowy faction trying to take its place at the table.
In interviews about Get Out, Peele admitted that after the election of Donald Trump, he just didn’t have the heart to stick with his script’s original ending, which saw Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris incarcerated for the murder of the Armitage family. It’s too bad, too: By presenting prison as a variation on the Sunken Place, Peele was paying off his script’s central metaphor and honoring a tradition of bleakness inaugurated by the coda of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (a finale evoked directly by the staging of Get Out’s climax). One way to read the complex subtext of Us, with its vague but unmistakable intimations of a culture war between haves and have-nots, is as a nihilistic corrective to Get Out’s relative optimism—as a sign that Peele has gotten that much more “serious.” At the same time, in trying to go that much further, Us shows palpable signs of fatigue, especially in a third act that comes heavily overburdened with exposition. The issue isn’t just that the explanations Peele offers about what Nyong’o’s monstrous twin calls “the Tethering” are fussy and convoluted in ways that Get Out’s bizarre, hilarious instructional video about the “Coagula” was not, but that he’s so insistent on explaining in the first place, as if he doesn’t want anybody to miss out on the big ideas he’s so evidently been trying to have.
The paradox is that the larger Us gets, the broader it goes with both the history and implications of the “Tethering,” and the more it tries to fill out the potential national allegory suggested by that “we are Americans” one-liner, the more it shrinks and starts to feel self-contained, even in its vagueness. Similarly, the more we learn about Adelaide and her doppleganger, the less unnerving the prologue’s vision of an unexpected encounter with the self becomes, although that’s no fault of Nyong’o, who plays the hell out of both roles, leveraging Adelaide’s hellacious, protective maternal resourcefulness against the vacant but calculating cruelty of her other self and finding vivid, provocative points of crossover in addition to the obvious physical and behavioral contrasts. The other actors are all strong as well, with Duke putting a witty spin on the archetype of the hipster dad and Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss contributing expert Caucasian caricatures as an unhappy couple staying a little farther down the shore, who, as it turns out, are no less implicated in what’s going on than Adelaide and her family.
Coming out of the screening, a friend said that Us would probably seem better if Peele’s name wasn’t on it, which is true enough and speaks to the difficulty of following up a classic. I’d also probably have liked Us’s striking, slow-burn final image more if I didn’t suspect that it’s been partially lifted from a recent, critically acclaimed American thriller (hint: it’s directed by Karyn Kusama and is set mostly at a dinner party) or if the God’s-eye widescreen grandeur of the composition felt earned rather than imposed. In an interview with The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey, Peele called Us “a bit of a Rorschach,” and yet I think a mirror ultimately is a better analogy. Not because of what it is so obviously trying to reflect and refract about its particular time and place, but because its mix of skill and strain compels us to work almost as hard as Peele to Try to Have an Idea about what it all means. Ideally, watching Us, we’d see ourselves, and some viewers may well have those moments of recognition. What I see is a talented guy going for broke and, for better and for worse, getting there.