Words || Alexander Watson
Jordan Peele had already proved superior understanding of cultural zeitgeist in his directorial debut Get Out.
His new film, Us, is not as obvious a polemic as this, but it is all the better for its ambition. It draws audiences in with a thrilling and deliciously horrifying cinematic experience.
The story follows the Wilson family, Adelaide and Gabe, and their young children Jason and Zora, on their summer vacation to Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide had visited the beach as a child with her parents, during which she had an experience she still mostly refuses to talk about.
This early experience serves as the film’s opening sequence, perhaps the most disturbing scene in the entire film. It follows a young Adelaide wandering into a hall of mirrors to meet someone who, by all rights, should not exist. It is a sequence that those who watch will doubtless come back to, as they are fed new information throughout the film.
Adelaide is therefore anxious about returning to those early childhood scenes, and her anxiety is exacerbated by odd experiences throughout the day. The first day culminates in a family standing in the driveway of the Wilson’s summer house, a family which looks exactly like them – aside from subtle differences in appearance, their red jumpsuits, and the golden scissors they carry.
It is difficult to explain what makes Us such a fascinating film without spoiling it for the audience, but the performances are, first and foremost, brilliant. Winston Duke (Gabe) provides most of the film’s funnier moments as a light-hearted father who has no idea what awaits, while his doppelganger inverts this harmless sensibility to terrifying effect. The child actors, too, are excellent, especially Shahadi Wright-Joseph, (Zora), who masterfully depicts a prototypical teenager, yet as her double, Umbrae, becomes a grinning, sprinting horror.
However, Lupita Nyongo, as Adelaide and her double, Red, will doubtless receive most of the plaudits. As Adelaide, she is a scared, but tough warrior. As Red, her off-kilter, insect-like movement and halting croak of a voice makes one forget you are watching the same actor. Both characters are more complex than they first appear, and the dual performance perfectly encapsulates the trauma and tragedy that both, to some extent, carry.
The film works perfectly as a straight-up horror film, with plenty of tension and some blood.
The first scene with the doppelgangers and the confrontation towards the end have an unsettling beauty about them. The music helps with that too, with Michael Abel providing harsh strings, and a creeping remix of ‘I Got 5 On It’ by Luniz setting the tone perfectly.
As for social commentary, Us’ message is more opaque. There is a strong element of class struggle, and the repression of guilt and identity runs throughout. Where Get Out before it was clear in excoriating a particular, condescending type of liberal racism, Us leaves the viewer with images of forgotten people and ineffective charity and turns them on their head. One public benefit event of the 1980s, in particular, is heavily referenced, and it may be the key to the complex take on privilege that Peele conveys.
Much is left to the imagination, and explanation is definitely not always a given; this film will leave audiences thinking, guessing, and trying to explain for themselves.
Still, this is far from a criticism; Us is a brilliant film, and demands multiple viewings, if only to fully digest its meaning. It is not a comforting tale, but it shows a director at the top of his game.