With Get Out, Jordan Peele investigated the concept of two bodies sharing the one soul through the lens of race. With Us he explores the lasting trauma of a soul divided between two bodies through the lens of class. In just two films, Peele has made a compelling case for himself as the new 21st century Hitchcock. But much more importantly and impressively, he’s capitalised on his unique ascension as a genre filmmaker to raise an excoriating mirror (literally and figuratively) to America and force audiences to come to terms with their distorted image and bloodied past.
“A nation divided against itself cannot stand.”
At a time when America is gridlocked by racial, political and social tribalism and division, Peele is subverting Abraham Lincoln’s famed and heeded words to create an original cautionary tale. What happens when the oppressed, those who are banished to the fringes or crevices of our society, decide it’s time to strike back at those with privilege and power? What happens when the light is engulfed by the shadowy darkness? What happens when a divided nation actually do take a stand?
Us is as audacious and ambitious a horror film as you will see. Bursting with existential ideas, commentary and questions. It’s a viewing experience that demands as little prior knowledge as possible. In this spirit, I will attempt to tiptoe around any plot point that isn’t outlined or inferred in the trailer.
The plot centres on the Wilson family as they partake on a summer vacation at Santa Cruz. While Gabe (Winston Duke) excitedly campaigns to take his family out for a spin on the lake, or a trip to the beach, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) protests – stating she doesn’t quite feel herself. 30 years previously she experienced some “unpleasantness” at this very location and her PTSD is starting to resurface as a result.
Still, the Wilson’s attempt to unwind with some family friends and enjoy their time under the sun.
Their frivolity ends later in the evening, when a familiar-looking family mysteriously and suddenly appear on the Wilson’s driveway. From this moment, the film quickly transforms into a home invasion story with a twist. The invaders are themselves. Twisted, tormented, brutalised copies of themselves. They are the tethered.
In Us, Peele is obsessed with the duality of the individual and America itself. He peppers his film with endless amounts of mirrored imagery both subtle and explicit. Whether it be an itsy bitsy spider crawling away from a larger plastic spider, a clock showing 11:11 or the doppelgängers themselves. Even the film’s murderous weapon of choice, the golden scissors, is a perfectly symmetrical double blade, and a clever turn from the usual iconography of the genre. Peele is clearly absorbed by the symmetry and reflections of humanity, and the shadows we cast.
“My shadow and me.”
In Jungian psychology, the shadow is seen as an unconscious or unknown aspect on one’s personality, which the conscious ego does not identify or even become aware of. Peele takes to this concept of the shadow and breathes physical/cinematic life into it. In Us, the shadow has been born into this world as the tethered, and Peele is keen to warp and contort these shadows, not unlike a funhouse mirror, to expose our ugly otherness.
Psychology and deeper meanings aside, Us demands to be taken seriously not just because of its ingenious and inventive scripting and tinkering with the horror genre, but because of the immensely impressive performances by the entire cast, headlined by the Lupita Nyong’o. Already a celebrated Academy Award winning actress, Nyong’o is tasked with creating two radically different characters in Adelaide and Red, who are irrevocably interconnected, yet still remain separate vessels and creatures. Her intensity is haunting and unsettling. Her distortion of voice and facial expression is sublime. Her ability to convey and conceal her fractured humanity through monsters is masterful.
Each member of the family (Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) present outstanding work, switching from believable everyday folk trying to survive, to their more animalistic monstrous counterparts. Duke deserves special mention for providing believability and an effortless comedic sensibility to a role that could have derailed the always mounting tension.
For better or worse, Get Out’s enormous success, both critically and commercially amongst fans and critics alike, meant that Peele had a hefty burden on his shoulders with his eventual follow up. Rather than playing it safe, Peele opted to throw caution to the wind and widen his scope as a filmmaker and as a social commentator. He also doubled down on the skill set that helped make a name for himself in the first place; his humour. Us is genuinely funny and Peele’s uncanny ability to insert levity or a perfectly timed wisecrack in amongst the nightmarish chaos, proves his worth as an exceptionally adroit filmmaker.
Also, the inclusion and expert utilisation of Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” is pure cinema. If you’re like me and felt chills watching the song orchestrally remixed for haunting effect in the trailer, just wait until you see what Peele has done with the classic hiphop beat in the context of the film.
Us is precisely the breed of film I covet and treasure. Something that is instantly rewatchable and demands far greater scrutiny and analysis than can be devoted to a spoiler-free review. But heed my warning. Don’t read or watch anything. Avoid social media. Don’t talk to your friends or family. Go see this film on opening weekend and spend the next 4 hours dissecting it with your friends. Play close attention to every single detail.
Us is the stuff of nightmares. The ones that haunt us and tether themselves to our psyche. Because Us is about identity and coming to terms with our hidden darkness. It’s about how we all wear masks and do our best to conceal our shadows deep inside ourselves. Ignoring that they exist. But they’re always there. Always looming under the surface of our skin. Hiding. Dormant. But ready to rise to the surface and be discovered at any moment. We fear what we are, what we can be and what we are capable of.
“We are our own worst enemy.”