Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Director: Jordan Peele
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Jordan Peele wants to scare the masses into introspection. If the writer-director’s galvanizing debut, Get Out, used the horror genre to reflect upon the complex feelings of being black within white society, then his followup, Us, is at least partially about the economic infrastructure upholding the American dream. The film’s central black family are middle/upper-class for a reason; forecasting the idea of minorities taking on the shape and form of white suburban life; exemplified here by a heavily intoxicated married couple played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Us is also less obvious about its themes than Get Out; choosing to layer messages through symbols (much like the government conspiracies which unfold under the surface of the plot), and forcing audiences to be reflective about their own complicity in the insidious nature of American life.
Of course, Peele is a smart enough filmmaker to realize the horror movie can produce visceral reactions unlike any other genre, and Us is a tense, superbly crafted piece of work; mixing suspense, gore, macabre comedy, and home invasion thriller tropes with startling sophistication. Like Get Out, Peele is able to meld deeper themes into the fabric of a mainstream crowdpleaser, and yet, Us is a more wildly ambitious project in nearly every area.
The film opens with a flashback set in 1986 where a little girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry), wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz, California amusement park. Entering a hall of mirrors exhibit, she stumbles upon her literal doppelgänger and almost instantly blacks out. Cut to the present day, where the adult Adelaide Wilson (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) returns once again to Santa Cruz with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their teenage daughter (Shahadi Wright Nelson) and young son (Evan Alex). During a trip to the beach, she’s visibly nerve-wracked as past memories of her former shadow self flood in, while her friends (played by Moss and Heidecker) remain oblivious as they ramble on about their rich white people problems. Later that night, a lookalike family shows up in the Wilson’s summer home driveway— clad in red jump suits—and the terror begins.
Peele stages the sustained home invasion with the perverse hand of someone tickled by wringing out his audience, and as we come to learn the invaders are in fact doppelgänger quasi-clones who spent time underground while their more “adjusted” counterpoints flourished, the film’s larger themes come into focus. The central idea here—that the success of one is in direction correlation with the harm of another— is nothing new, but a dissection of American capitalism is perhaps not what one might expect after Peele’s rather blunt, but entirely satisfying, treatise on 21st-Century racism in Get Out. As the Wilson’s shadow selves become more empowered, the “less human” class rises up to take control by any means necessary. The great trick of the film is the way it challenges complacent audiences into siding with what in any other horror movie would be the de facto villains.
Some may balk at the film’s nightmarish third act where heavy-handed exposition is laid out and the twists start piling up, but the underground setting (complete with a Dawn of the Dead homage involving a mall escalator) is rendered with such eerie finesse that the larger implications of the story only start to coalesce long after the credits have rolled. Perhaps the most potent twist here isn’t the reveal of Adelaide’s true identity (which will no doubt spawn many think-pieces), but rather, that the real enemy is our own privilege. Peele has fashioned Us as first and foremost a terrifying thriller with an extraordinary dual performance from Nyong’o, but secondly, as an ongoing dialogue about politics, race, generational trauma, and economic disparity which complicates the more tidy (though still unnerving) resolution from Get Out. As it turns out, the ungainly monster at the heart of contemporary America mirrors how we navigate through its capitalistic systems; untethered from our own shadow selves until they return to take back what is rightfully theirs.