If, for whatever reason, you were still having doubts that Jordan Peele, half the mind behind Key and Peele, which filled the void left from Chappelle’s Show, and the entire mind behind 2017’s monster hit Get Out, as well as the upcoming Twilight Zone reboot, consider them extinguished with the release of Us. Peele has solidified himself as one of the most important and pensive artists of the current generation and beyond, and he’s firing on all cylinders with his sophomore film. The themes and ideas put forth are grander and more all-encompassing than Get Out – this winds up being both good and bad, but the sheer ambition and genius behind it all continues to be mightily impressive.
In 1986, a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) is on vacation at the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. Adelaide wanders off while the adults are distracted, as children are prone to do, and winds up exploring a house of mirrors on the beach. What she encounters in there is enough to scar her for life, so much to the point that she’s unable to speak for a considerable amount of time afterwards. Jump to the present day, and a fully grown Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is returning to Santa Cruz and facing her fears, along with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). What starts off as a fun and refreshing vacation immediately turns into a violent and terrifying nightmare. Four strangers, clad in matching red jumpsuits and each wielding large scissors, show up at the family’s summer home, and they have a thirst for blood. The scariest part? They look exactly like them.
Peele is paying homage to the classic horror flicks of the 80s here, and he proudly scatters references and stages scenes inspired by them throughout his film. A young Adelaide wanders the dark beach in an oversized Michael Jackson’s Thriller tee, Jason rocks a Jaws shirt for most of the movie, and a news report echoes the feelings of Night of the Living Dead. There’s no shortage of scares to experience in Us, the most notable being the home invasion sequence that’s dominated most of the marketing. The use of darkness, tight spaces, and angles drive home the fact that the Wilsons are trapped and the walls are both literally and figuratively closing in. Us is far more creepy and unsettling than Get Out was, due in large part to phenomenal performances from the cast pulling double duty, and the violence is on par with the best slasher films.
Nyong’o dominates the screen as both Adelaide and her sinister counterpart, playing each role so drastically differently and relying not solely on a change of voice but a change of physicality, that you’d swear they were inhabited by different actors. Adelaide is a former ballerina, and thus moves with speed, grace, and lightness, but her shadow moves in very staticky and jerky movements, more like a machine or a puppet than a normal human being. The doppelgangers, who call themselves The Tethered, are a bold statement in concept alone. Literally living underground, their lives are filled with nothing but pain and misery while their other halves get to enjoy the sunlight and all the glorious things the world has to offer.
It’s here that Peele unleashes his true ideas with Us – it’s a funhouse mirror reflection back at the audience, at all of us, that forces us to look at the cost of our lives and the way we live them. It’s no accident that the Wilsons are shown to be an upper class family (not filthy rich but certainly not struggling, they have a summer house for god’s sake), with a dynamic that mimics the standard American image: The no-nonsense mother, the goofy father, the standoffish daughter, and the troublemaker son. We often forget, or rather, continuously choose to ignore, the price of that kind of lifestyle. How many people around the world suffer not just while we flourish, but suffer in order for us to flourish?
The Tethered are the ultimate symbol for the forgotten people that excessive living steps on and abuses in order to maintain itself – they’re a stinging and uncomfortable look at the lives we destroy and put out of our minds so that we can enjoy that summer home, that new car, that iPhone, those new clothes. And of course they look like us, not just to remind us that these are people and not monsters, but to show that the true horror, the true murderers, the true enemies, are us. It’s a brilliant metaphor, and Peele mostly succeeds at the numerous themes and concepts he stuffs into the nearly two hour film. But they are numerous, and as the film goes on it can begin to feel a bit overly ambitious, and the lack of focus and precision bleeds through, especially when you compare it to the very streamlined Get Out.
There’s so much to unpack with Us that it feels impossible to wrap your mind around all that it has to offer with just one watch. Similar to his first film, Peele practically demands multiple viewings, and it’s certain to spawn even more videos and essays breaking it all down and explaining the various references, Easter eggs, and themes. The movie feels like it could’ve benefited from either being split into two parts or finding a single idea to focus a bit more on instead of throwing all of them together at once. Still, Us is a hell of a ride that’s bursting with Peele’s now signature style and humor. The final confrontation is one of my favorite movie moments of the year, and its ending lands on a truly unsettling gut punch. Don’t sleep on this one.
4 / 5 Stars
Us is now playing in theaters everywhere.