There’s a line spoken early in Us, the sophomore feature from writer/director Jordan Peele (Get Out) that is important but doesn’t give anything away about the film’s true nature. It’s spoken by the broken-throated doppelgänger of Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide Wilson character (named Red, although I don’t remember any doppelgänger names being revealed during the movie). When asked by Adelaide “Who are you?”, Red responds “We are Americans.” It’s not the answer we nor the Wilson family is expecting, and at that moment in the story, we’re not even sure what she means (to be fair, there’s a good chance you won’t understand that answer by the end of the film either). But at that moment, I realized that the true name of Peele’s new work might not be Us; it could be U.S.
Some might be bothered to learn that Us isn’t really a film explicitly about race, the way Get Out was. Some might believe that this time around, Peele might double down on racial dynamics in America in a purer version of a horror movie than his first film was. Instead, by creating an entire doppelgänger culture in America, he’s looking at the changing face of all Americans—not just those of a particular race or culture. He’s acknowledging that we all have good and bad elements to our personalities, and that most of us keep the bad things pushed down and hidden away, because polite society would banish us to the hinterlands if we let it out. But what if society changed enough that it was all right to let the monster within us run free in the open and commit evil acts with no consequences? Now you’re starting to understand…
Most people will tell you that Us begins with a prologue set in 1986 in which young Adelaide (a remarkable Madison Curry) wanders off from her parents at an amusement park on the beaches of Santa Cruz, California. She goes into a seemingly harmless type of fun house just as a huge storm is rolling in, and as a result, the power goes out leaving her trapped in its depths. It is there where she first encounters her doppelgänger, who looks exactly like her but with slight variations that make her seem sinister behind a haunting grin. We don’t know exactly what happens in the next few minutes, but her parents eventually find the traumatized girl who manages to escape with her life and psyche mostly intact.
But the film actually opens with a shot of a television, playing a series of time-appropriate (1986) commercials, including one for Hands Across America, a charity event/stunt during which 6.5 million people formed a human chain across the entirety of the country (except for giant sections where they didn’t and had to use ribbon to bridge the many gaps). It’s exactly the type of misguided exercise in patriotism and artificial unity that seems to be making a comeback in the present day. While the event itself was harmless, the sentiment behind it was severely misguided and forced. The use of the clip in Us is not an accident.
In the present, the Wilson family—Adelaide, husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger brother Jason (Evan Alex)—head back to Adelaide’s old vacation stomping grounds of Santa Cruz, where she spends a great deal of her time afraid the kids will disappear from her sight and regretting coming there at all. Gabe is a perpetual optimist, believing that the trip will be exciting for all, so much so that he buys a used boat to use in the nearby bay. They even meet up with their friends Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin teen girls (Cali and Noelle Sheldon), and things look to be heading in a positive direction. Pretty much everything you have seen in the trailers for Us takes place in the first 30 minutes. The sequence in which they first encounter their doppelgängers is easily the scariest thing I’ve seen in quite some time in any horror film, because we simply have no idea what’s going on and how this situation is even fathomable. Is it supernatural, extraterrestrial, science fiction? I’m still not sure I know, so those of you who demand every mystery in every movie be solved and then spelled out for you are in for a rude awakening.
My favorite moments in Us are when Peele allows us to explore the differences and similarities between the Wilsons and the doppelgänger, all of whom wear red jumpsuits and wield oversized shears, perfect for precise stabbing and slicing. Each of the actors gets a chance to act with themselves in a way that highlights what incredible performances they’re giving, especially Nyong’o, whose doppelgänger is the only one who can speak, and just barely at that.
The film isn’t exactly a gore-fest, but it also doesn’t shy away from spilling a whole lot of blood. Admittedly beyond that first encounter, I didn’t find much of Us particularly terrifying. Thought provoking, smart, expertly crafted? Absolutely. But only occasionally worthy of the label horrifying, which isn’t a bad thing at all, simply an observation. After that first 30 minutes, the film takes us in directions not even hinted at in the trailers, which is a beautiful thing. The scope grows beyond this family of four, without ever leaving them. As more about the doppelgängers is revealed, the more we actually start to empathize with them, while still fearing them to our core. And like most things we fear because we don’t understand them, the more we learn about these doubles the less we are scared of them. Although the eerie score by Peele’s now-regular composer Michael Abels goes a long way toward unsettling our nerves.
And that’s the key point about Us: as much as Peele has structured his film like a horror movie, whether it’s successful or not doesn’t depend on the number or quality of scares. This film bites with all of its teeth. It’s an exercise in a certain level of brutality that we seem to reserve for those we know the best—our family, our friends, our neighbors. Everything in Us feels personal and familiar, to the point where things get uncomfortable in ways that simply being scared can’t touch. Peele may not yet be a master of scaring us, but he’s great at figuring out what scares us and using it against us—the audience—in ways that jump scares don’t. His second film shows a respectable amount of growth in the complexity of its narrative and social commentary, and his skills as a filmmaker are gaining ground as well. I suspect horror fans and non-fans will like Us in equal measure, but the non-fans might actually get more out of the ambiguity of the piece as long as they remember that there’s nothing wrong with not knowing everything.
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