Author: Sam Seliger
Jordan Peele shocked, terrified and amazed the world with his debut “serious” film “Get Out” back in 2017. That Oscar-winning movie depicted a black man joining his white girlfriend’s family for a week in rural upstate New York, which devolved into a bizarre world of hypnosis and brain transplanting. The movie was driven, in part, by the underlying racial tension. The fear that it would degenerate into violent racism made for a powerful social commentary, as did the horror itself. The movie was commentary for the sake of saying something; the movie was equally as important as what it was trying to say.
“Us,” Peele’s follow-up, is not that movie. Yes, it does have something to say about how we repress and fear something about ourselves. Maybe “Us” has some subtle but poignant social commentary about U.S. history, maybe it doesn’t, you can decide for yourself. But whatever commentary there is serves mostly to enhance and establish the film, and nothing more. And that’s a good thing.
“Us” is a brilliant horror movie that exists in its own world. While the realism of “Get Out” gave it the sense that it could really happen and was really happening, “Us” is only real enough to be entirely believable. It is not, and is not supposed to be, an extension of the world around us (no pun intended).
The film begins in Southern California, 1986, where a young girl named Adelaide runs off from her family at the beachfront boardwalk in the evening and has a traumatic experience in a semi-abandoned hall of mirrors. It then time-shifts to the present day, where a now grown-up Adelaide Wilson (played by “12 Years a Slave” star Lupita Nyong’o) is now the mother of a family of four.
We are introduced to Adelaide, the quiet mother who looks out for her kids at all costs, the fun-loving and casual dad Gabe (Winston Duke, who acted alongside Nyong’o in Marvel’s “Black Panther”), slightly rebellious pre-teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and quiet, socially challenged younger son Jason (Evan Alex). Together, they make an authentic and believable family unit. There is no illusion of perfection: they fight and disagree, but overall, they are about as wonderful as a real family could be. It starkly contrasts their friends’ family (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), who drink to excess and quarrel with real malice.
All goes well for the Wilsons (well, almost all) as they return to that fateful beach to spend a week at their beach house, until a family of four in red jumpsuits appears in their driveway. They quickly introduce themselves to be doppelgängers of the Wilson family, and the similarities aren’t just physical. They are also intent on murdering the family, armed each with a pair of razor-sharp metal shears. All four actors are tasked with the daunting challenge of playing both their relatively normal character and their inverse, but not entirely inhuman, opposites.
All of them execute this task stunningly, as Duke’s talkative and fun-loving Gabe battles his intense, grunting “shadow” Abraham, Wright Joseph’s moody rising track star Zora runs from her smiling double Umbrae and Alex’s introverted Jason has a playdate of sorts with his fiendish opposite Pluto.
Nyong’o easily takes the cake with her double role. As Adelaide, she is a quiet and protective mother, forced to suppress her own PTSD and resort to violence to keep her family alive, a role she plays with nuance and touch. She struggles to keep her composure but steps up as the leader of the family with a shaky confidence that Nyong’o delivers so authentically you forget Adelaide is a character in a movie and not a real person. As Adelaide’s double Red, Nyong’o is a calculating and diabolical leader hell-bent on vengeance. She speaks in a terrifying harsh rasp and moves with a intensity and conviction.
As the movie goes on, we see the Wilsons continue to fight their doubles, as “Us” becomes a home-invasion/survival thriller with larger implications. That’s really all the specifics I can give about the plot without spoiling it.
Peele’s script is superb, and his directing is masterful. The color symbolism of red, often used to represent violence, danger and, of course, blood, is present throughout the movie. It makes itself known, from the red of the jumpsuits, to the red of a candy apple that is dropped to the red on several t-shirts. As also hinted in the trailers and advertising, hands play an important role in the movie, as subtle focusing on a hand comes up several times.
Since Peele spent most of his career as a comedian, there are plenty of comic moments. Comedy, after all, is the antithesis of tragedy, and this is a movie about opposites. While there are plenty of jokes in the exposition, including a scene where Duke says “I would have actually to preferred you use a curse word instead of that,” or when Zora asks if a song on the radio is about drugs, to which Duke replies “no,” allowing for the words “roll a joint” to linger from the next line of the song.
But the jokes don’t stop as the conflict emerges. Peele is an expert at temporarily diffusing tension, long enough to give the viewer a chance to breathe, and sometimes, to let it become fun. In one scene, a character tells their smart home assistant to call the police, which the speaker interprets as a command to play music, allowing NWA’s “F*** Tha Police” to soundtrack the next several minutes of brutal murder. Later on, while being pursued by the doubles, Zora learns to drive on the fly, trying to save her family’s lives, and runs over a doppelganger.
Even more so than the script, the camerawork is amazing. Peele and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis deserve tremendous credit. In the opening scenes, as a young Adelaide wanders through the hall of mirrors, we are treated with disorienting reflections and angles. Beyond the mirror gimmicks, the cinematography enhances the terror in the movie. In one scene, the camera slowly rotates in a full circle, starting with a character being beaten with a bat just off camera and rotating away to give a quick view of the entire petrified house.
In another scene, they cut repeatedly between a dance performance and a violent battle, as the shifts in angle and lighting emphasize the similarity between the movements. Even in the lighter scenes, they deliver shock, such as when Winston and Adelaide are talking, and Jason, who is supposed to be asleep, pops out of the shadows in the corner of the screen, frightening both his parents and the viewers.
There have been two main criticisms of “Us.” The first has been that it is trying to say too much and is not sure enough in its commentary. This stems from a misinterpretation of the film. Although there are several references to American identity and actions of the U.S. government, Peele has said that the film is not about politics at all. If one looks for a clear political commentary, they will find half-baked statements about a variety of topics. If they do not read into the politics too much, as Peele intended, they can focus on the movie’s true message.
The second point of criticism is the ending twists. Some critics said you can see it coming from a mile away. That’s not exactly true. While I knew Peele was going to do something at the end of the movie to communicate maybe we have something in common with our evil other halves, I had no clue how he was going to do it, so the final twist certainly took me by surprise.
Ultimately, “Us” may not have as potent a commentary as “Get Out,” but it is arguably a better film. With brilliant performances, thrilling cinematography, an impeccable script and a few laughs thrown in for good measure, the only way to describe “Us” other than “great” is “terrifying.”