Written and Directed by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, and Elisabeth Moss
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“They look exactly like us. They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won't stop until they kill us... or we kill them."
I can’t help but imagine that the monumental success of something like Get Out might feel like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the burden of expectations going forward must feel immediately immense and give an artist some pause; on the other, however, it must also feel emboldening to have the creative equivalent of “fuck you” money in the proverbial bank, not to mention the type of security that can only be felt when a studio gives you carte blanche to do whatever the hell you want. With only one feature behind him, Jordan Peele has rightfully earned the kind of clout most artists can only dream of when reckoning with such success, and his sophomore effort Us confronts dichotomy as its recurring motif. In doing so, Peele definitely seems more emboldened than wary about the prospect.
This doesn’t feel like the work of a timid artist tempted to play it safe; rather, Us is very much the confirmation of a bold artist unafraid of swinging for the fences. While his follow-up might not be as easy to embrace as Get Out, Us is no less audacious. It is almost certainly a much weirder, more ambiguous, and even frustrating experience; it’s a puzzle box with jagged edges that don’t quite lock into place, making it immediately fascinating. In the long run, it might also prove to be equally as vital as its predecessor. Either way, Us is a film that lands with the definitive air of mastery, beckoning you to grasp at its meaning even as remains somewhat elusive.
Peele’s puzzle arrives wrapped up in a mystery box prologue set in 1986, where young Adelaide Thomas (Madison Curry) strolls through the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. With her father distracted by a carnival game, she wanders off to the nearby beach, the site of a funhouse that seems to summon her with a supernatural force. Lost inside the hall of mirrors, she stumbles around in the dark before bumping into what she thinks is her reflection; in fact, it’s her doppelganger, and the horror of that realization still lingers 30 years later. Now married with two children, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) continues to be haunted by her childhood episode, especially whenever the family returns to her childhood home for summer vacation. Her anxiety only grows when husband Gabe (Winston Duke) suggests they spend a day at the very same beach, where the old funhouse still looms ominously, threatening to upend the entire vacation with its unsettling, traumatic memories.
Adelaide survives the day but is still insistent on leaving. All these years later, she can’t shake the feeling that her doppelganger will return for her after all. Speaking this fear seems to amount to an incantation: before the night is out, four silhouettes appear in the driveway and descend upon the house. Once the siege is complete, the Wilsons are startled to discover that their assailants look like bizarre, almost wraith-like shades of themselves. Speaking only in guttural grunts and cryptic, half-whispered platitudes, the doppelgangers don’t account for their presence. “We’re Americans,” ringleader Red (also Nyong’o) offers as an ominous prelude to the carnage that follows.
Us doesn’t hesitate to establish its horror credentials early and often. It’s almost like Peele anticipated the inevitable (and, quite frankly, exasperatingly lame) debate about determining the genre for a film featuring scissors-wielding maniacs, so he gets out in front of it in a big way. Well before its signature doppelgangers appear, Us broods with an insidious menace, as its initial, nostalgia-glazed veneer of iconic VHS box art and familiar horror movie locales quickly yields to an unsettling, grim vision of the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Look beyond the Thriller and Black Flag t-shirts and you find a childhood nightmare of leering weirdos, otherworldly seaside storms, and the spookiest goddamn thing imaginable: being lost in a funhouse with only your own reflection to guide you out—or, as it turns out, something even worse than that.
Peele doesn’t relent when the scene shifts to the present day. Even though much of the Wilsons’ vacation initially unfolds in broad daylight, an unreal haze creeps at the edges. DP Mike Gioulakis’s vision of Santa Cruz bears a sickly pallor, as if the life were slowly being drained from the place. It becomes a perfect staging ground for the first signs that something is off: a grisly accident involving homeless man gives Adelaide a bout of déjà vu; like his mother 30 years earlier, young Jason (Evan Alex) senses something awful about the funhouse; another stranger stands with his arms outstretched, the tips of his fingers dripping blood onto the beach. An uncanny summertime scene, it captures that vaguely unsettling feeling of visiting a familiar place in a dream: it looks natural at first glance, yet somehow feels unshakably askew.
For the Wilsons, it’s only the beginning of a nightmare that swiftly escalates to harrowing, visceral violence. Building upon his sharp, thrilling work in Get Out, Peele exhibits the same sort of chops in crafting another intense, rousing horror movie that coils into a crucible of suspense before unleashing bursts of gory thrills. Gioulakis’s stark, evocative photography—particularly the unreal blue hues that swallow the film when the invaders emerge—accents Peele’s impeccable visual craftmanship, while composer Michael Abels’s score provides haunting, choral flourishes to the manic proceedings. Alongside editor Nicholas Monsour, this trio conspires to render Us into the stuff of primal horror, the type of movie that appeals straight to the reptile part of the brain, where pure survival and wanton violence reign supreme. Peele spends the middle stretch of the film indulging splatter movie impulses as the Wilsons fend off their doubles with various implements, from fire pokers to boat propellers.
In theory, it’s the standard stuff of home invasion and survival pictures, but Peele and the cast inject it with a distinct personality. It’s a particularly fleet-of-foot riff on the theme, buoyed with just the right amount of levity (most of it courtesy of Duke’s patriarch and his endless cache of dad jokes) and clever embellishments in the form of devious jolts and cool needle-drops. In what already feels like the film’s signature scene, a rousing bloodbath unfolds as “Good Vibrations” and “Fuck tha Police” blare in the background, and you can’t help but be swept up in the incredible amount of fun Peele is having. He knows what he has on his hands here, and he masterfully plays up this outlandish confrontation between the eminently charming Wilsons and their laconic, enigmatic doppelgangers.
Us thrives on that hellacious hook, and Peele gives both himself and his cast enough space to run wild in the sandbox. As the Wilsons, the cast beams with life and a lived-in familial chemistry; if Us were just a hangout movie about this family’s vacation, it’d be entertaining as hell to watch them bounce off of each other and the Tylers, their affluent, slightly smarmy friends (Elisabeth Moss & Tim Heidecker). Us delivers this and much more, and you sense everyone is having even more fun playing the doppelgangers, these lithe, vicious, almost inhuman beings whose red jumpsuits, peculiar grins, and unnatural movements portend the awful secret lurking at the heart of the film. Watching this family’s brutal encounter is thrilling in the moment, but the film constantly hurtles forward, dangling the obvious question in front of the audience: “just what in the hell is going on here?” (Spoilers from this point forward.)
Peele doesn’t exactly play coy with his answer; while Us never connects each and every one of its scattered dots, it leaves viewers with plenty to chew on. You sense that Peele himself also has a lot to chew on, and the last third of Us almost feels like his real-time attempt to untangle his musings on personal identity and various societal ills, from privilege disparity to empty demonstrations and faux activism. Us has thematic heft and then some, so much so that the script requires a lengthy, somewhat ungraceful exposition dump that only begins to explain the presence of The Tethered, the name given to the apparently nationwide group of doppelgangers who have emerged to exact vengeance for a lifetime spent underground, forced to mimic every movement of their above-ground counterparts.
The script goes a step forward by positing these doubles as failed government experiments born out of the desire to control citizens like puppets, a notion that naturally leads to questions of logistical issues. An opening title card anticipates some of these with the revelation that thousands of miles of tunnels stretch on beneath the U.S., many of them with no apparent purpose. By tethering such a wild concept to reality, Peele initially leaves you wanting to raise your hand at the screen and ask questions about how any of this is supposed to work; however, Us chugs right ahead with the expectation that you’re just going to go with it, much like you do whenever you watch C.H.U.D. (whose VHS cover appears in the opening shot in a bit of cheeky foreshadowing). What’s more important is that the scenario is ripe for any number of symbolic and thematic implications: Peele isn’t worried about getting tangled up in the literal details but is rather more concerned with allowing viewers to take from it what they will: just as the characters in the film must confront themselves, the audience must look into a mirror and decide what Us means.
Unlike Get Out, which emerged as fairly direct, savage metaphor for race relations, Us is a bit more cagey, operating more of a blank slate. Viewers can project any number of readings onto it, be them mythological, psychological, or socio-political. All at once, it’s a screwy riff on Plato’s Cave, a bleak look into the monstrous capabilities of the human psyche, and an indictment on how society subjugates and belittles the “other.” All of these interpretations—plus several others, I’m sure—are equally valid once you free Us from its earthen, literal bonds: yes, there are still nagging questions about some of the film’s later revelations, but there’s an argument to be made that most horror movies ask us to buy into the inexplicable and give ourselves over to it.
Doing so for Us yields an abundance of sharp insight into both private and public spheres. The Tethered most obviously function as an allegory for how we cast away the country’s underprivileged, putting them out of sight and out of mind, save for a few hollow gestures (the unexpected prominence of Hands Across America, an ill-fated attempt at 80s activism, proves to be more than a mere throwaway period gag). As they emerge from their underground prison, they become a metaphor for proletariat revolt, looking to upend the posh, comfortable lives of their counterparts. By imagining them as literal doppelgangers, Peele would have us to consider the tenuous thread that keeps us on one side of the class divide or the other: what privileges and good fortune have we experienced to put us in a desired position?
As Peele digs further into this notion, Nyong’o’s tremendous dual performance becomes crucial in narrowing the thematic focus to an intimate level. Despite the film’s ever expanding scope, Nyong’o remains its center of gravity. As Adelaide, she grows from a shaken, haunted survivor of childhood trauma to a fierce, protective ass-kicker: you can see the change in her face as her wide, terrified eyes begin to simmer with violent resolve. Counterpart Red takes the opposite tract, starting out as a collection of bug-eyed tics and mannerisms before Nyong’o finds the unsettlingly human motivations guiding this deranged doppelganger. Nyong’o as positively magnetic as the entire thrust of the film moves through her screen presence, moving towards the inevitable collision between the two halves of this warring soul.
The collision proves to be a topsy-turvy moment, one that turns the entirety of the film on its head. Suddenly, the threads separating protective matriarch Adelaide and vengeful monster Red begin to unravel, leading both the characters and the audience to consider who is truly monstrous here. In many ways, Peele’s simply riffing on the age-old musings of Frankenstein here by positing that we are actually the monsters we’ve repressed, a rather obvious and surface-level notion that reveals further depth of meaning upon closer examination. It’s not that Peele is suggesting that we are monstrous; it’s that, perhaps, we must be monstrous.
If the Tethered are our unhinged id, then their surfacing suggests that our brutish impulses can’t be suppressed forever; what’s more, we may need this part of our psyche. What seems to be a throwaway exchange between Nyong’o and Moss early in the film becomes more portentous by the end: while making chit-chat on the beach, both women express regret for their failed potential. Adelaide reveals she “peaked at fourteen” as a ballerina—the same age we later learn that her doppelganger began to fulfill her messianic destiny. What if we need every part of ourselves—even our repressed, forgotten, soulless impulses—to reach our full potential? What if we can’t tell our best selves from our worst selves?
Both this dialogue and other subtleties strewn throughout (the Wilson son’s gag toy struggles to produce a spark, while his doppelganger gleefully lights matches; the daughter wants to give up on her ambitions of being a track runner, while her counterpart glides like a world-class athlete) seem to suggest as much, taking viewers down yet another line of thematic reasoning (and this is not to mention how Du Bois’s conception of a double consciousness and a symbolic veil for African-Americans might further shade this conversation). The film’s climactic reveal—which admittedly feels like something dreamed up for pure shock factor at first—solidifies Us as a film that isn’t content to provide easy, delicately packaged answers.
This is a film that aims to unsettle in a way its predecessor did not; in many ways, Get Out arrived at exactly the right moment to capitalize on a stunned, staggered zeitgeist only beginning to reckon with the Trump regime. As angry as that film is, it’s also weirdly optimistic in its insistence that Chris will survive and that the likes of Rod—a representative of a government agency, no less—will always be there to somehow save the day. Now that we’re two years further down this rabbit hole, things are much murkier, and Us reflects that: if Get Out drew a clear line between good and evil, then this follow-up gleefully trudges right through it and kicks dirt all over the notion. Our demons won’t always wear the assuming face of evil but will rather dwell among us: in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our government offices—and maybe even our very souls. By the very nature of its title, Get Out suggests the possibility of escape; Us only brings us back to the one thing we can never truly flee.
Peele’s crafted a puzzle in Us that resists coherency upon first glance; fittingly, perhaps, it takes a second look to grasp the full picture. Even then, I can only imagine it won’t be content to lock completely into place. After all, his most unsettling suggestion here is that even our own puzzles don’t always reveal themselves to have missing pieces.
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