‘Us’ is a horror movie.
— Jordan Peele (@JordanPeele) March 17, 2019
I don’t know anyone that actually saw Peele’s first film, Get Out, and left thinking that it was a comedy, though it was treated that way by many. Maybe if you’ve never experienced the unique tension that comes with being a person of colour in a homogeneously white community it might not have played with quite the same impact as it would to someone who had, but it was still undeniably a horror film. It hurts to have someone laugh at your real pain or struggles.
Wanting to leave no doubt about his sophomore effort, Us, Peele has crafted an experience that is explicitly, unabashedly, unrelentingly a horror film. And it’s scary as hell, while being a much more ambitious and overt exploration of unwitting body possession than Get Out ever was. It doesn’t always feel as cohesive as Peele’s first film, but that’s to Us’s credit. Peele uses narrative, visual, and thematic elements, layered one on top of the next, to keep the audience guessing as to what will happen next.
The Wilson family – Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason (Evan Alex) – are vacationing in Santa Cruz with family friends the Tylers: Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), Josh (Tim Heidecker), and their creepy twins (Cali and Noelle Sheldon) when the unthinkable happens, and Jason wanders off, triggering a long-buried trauma in Adelaide’s past.
When the Wilsons return home, shaken but determined to continue their vacation, four figures, a mirror image of the Wilson family, appear in their driveway, brandishing scissors and wearing identical red jumpsuits that are almost certainly a reference to prison uniforms. There are other differences too; the doppelgangers emit truly unsettling guttural sounds, and only the family matriarch, Adelaide’s double, can actually form words. Zora’s double is, for my money, the creepiest of all (even over the masked and scarred pyromaniac double of Jason) with her ghastly frozen smile and unrelenting pursuit of the “real” Zora.
Mirrors and reflections abound in nearly every shot of Us, unsubtle nods to the idea of our shadow selves and The Tethered, and I can say with some conviction that I’ll get the skeeves every time I walk by a funhouse mirror from now on. In fact, very little about Us is superfluous. Every shot feels purposeful and deliberate on Peele’s part. In this way, Us is a movie that welcomes and, I would assert, demands repeat viewings. Practically every shot is dense with visual cues about Peele’s influences, from the t-shirts that the characters wear, to videotape titles on a bookshelf, and, of course, the re-purposing of songs you thought you knew, like The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the haunting hook from Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It.” Given Peele’s encyclopedic knowledge of horror, even the title might be a sly reference to the seminal 2006 home invasion thriller Them (Ils), or perhaps 1954’s Them!, which was about monsters emerging from tunnels beneath the surface (and other common themes that Us shares, which ventures into spoiler territory).
Because all the main characters in Us play dual roles, it allows for both the Wilson and the Tyler clans to flex their acting chops – especially Nyong’o, who is a vision in this film, and Moss. You’ll never mistake a surface-worlder for their Tethered clones, and that’s owing to both the subtle and obvious ways that the actors distinguish the characters from one another. The Tethered’s sharp, puppet-like mannerisms evoke the best of Japanese horror or Regan from The Exorcist.
Us is, to me, a film that’s primarily about two Americas – the surface, happy, jovial one and the ugly, feral, shadow version that lies right beneath. This America seems intent on whitewashing its history, just as the culturally-insensitive “Vision Quest” funhouse with its racist Native American caricatures is supplanted by “Merlin’s Quest” on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Peele is asserting, correctly in my opinion, that burying our dark pasts as individuals and as a nation, is almost guaranteed to come back to bite, or perhaps stab, us at the moment we become most comfortable.
As Adelaide’s double says when asked who they are, “We’re Americans.” It’s the most chilling line in a film full of chilling lines. Us is about the worst kind of monster – the one that looks and even thinks as we do. And it’s about how that monster is beside us every day, a twisted shadow version of ourselves, from which we can never fully untether.