Directed By: Jordan Peele
Release Date: March 22, 2019
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright, Evan Alex
The year is 1986. It's young Adelaide's birthday, and she's spending it at the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. When her mother goes to the bathroom and with her father distracted playing a carnival game, she wanders off on her own, eventually finding herself in a house of mirrors, where she comes face to face with a young girl that looks exactly like her. Though the particulars of what happened during their encounter aren’t immediately revealed, the event is traumatic enough for Adelaide to seemingly retreat into herself, unable to speak or socialize with others.
Years later, an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright), and son, Jason (Evan Alex), staying in their family vacation home. Still haunted by meeting her mysterious doppelganger as a child and tormented by the very idea of being back in Santa Cruz, she finally shares her experience with Gabe, confiding that she has worried her whole life that the other her is out there somewhere, biding time until she coming for her.
As it turns out, she's right, as her doppelganger, along with doppelgangers of the entire family, turns up outside her home, setting off a night of terror that will force Adelaide to confront her past and that fateful night in ways that will change more than she could’ve ever expected.
That is, without spoiling too much, the basic setup for what goes down in Jordan Peele's Us, his highly-anticipated follow-up to 2017's Get Out, a film which took the world by storm and demonstrated that Peele could very well be a force to be reckoned with in the world of horror filmmaking. With Us, Peele cements that fact, delivering a stellar sophomore outing that's an absolute blast to watch, strong for how sure-handed and confident the director and his entire team, particularly the incredibly game cast he populates the film with, are in telling this story.
In lesser hands, Us could've turned into a hollow, jump scare-filled piece of standard, well-trod horror. After all, doppelgangers aren't something new to fiction, whether it's in the form of clones or shape-shifting aliens or body snatchers, and Peele's well-defined and publicized influences – such as The Twilight Zone – are as evident here as they were in Get Out. But what makes Us stand out is Peele's desire to put performance over spectacle, as it were; the first act of the film, even as the mystery of what's happening and what is to come is slowly unfurled, takes care to invest us in Adelaide and her family, subverting many expectations about each one's role in the process.
Horror films have conditioned us to believe certain things about characters, especially in terms of family dynamics and the tropes that lie within. The father tends to be the tough guy. The teenage daughter will be obnoxious. The young son will be an unhelpful hindrance. The mother will overcome some sort of weakness and find the strength to defend her family. With Us, Peele plays on those tropes in ways that feel fresh. Despite his physical appearance, Gabe is a goofball, throwing out terrible dad jokes left and right. Despite having a cell phone glued to one hand and an ear bud perpetually wedged in at least one ear, Zora has a good, respectful relationship with her parents. Jason turns out to be incredibly observant and clever without it feeling unearned.
And then there's Adelaide. In a film of great performances from Duke, Wright, and Alex – and when I say great, I mean it, as they all help ensure that the whole family is worth rooting for – it says a lot that Nyong'o in particular stands out. She's fantastic here, pulling double duty as Adelaide and her doppelganger, named Red in the credits, in ways that highlight her incredible range. Red and Adelaide couldn't feel further apart as characters in terms of how they speak, the way they move, and even the smallest, quirkiest of mannerisms. When Red speaks for the first time, it's entrancing, as we're meeting an incredibly unique character unlike any we've ever seen before whose ability to command a scene comes right down to Nyong’o's amazing abilities as an actress. If Us follows in Get Out's footsteps in entering the Academy Award arena, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see Nyong'o nominated for Best Actress.
Her performance is also tied into the fact that Peele – and the film itself – is very aware that audiences are coming in already working on putting together the film's central mysteries. Who are these doppelgangers? What do they want? Where are they coming from? If Us is a puzzle, Peele meticulously lays out piece by piece in front of us right out of the gate, from visual cues to little nuances in what Adelaide and Red say and do and so on. A notable t-shirt made prominent in the opening of the film, for instance, practically telegraphs something crucial about the texture of the entire film, and yet it's presented in such a fitting, nonchalant way that will keep many from noticing that the film slyly shows its hand – and continually does so – so early.
In revealing the answers to the big questions, though, something that happens near the end of the film, it's also made clear that Peele is less interested in the minutia of the mythology he's created and how the characters serve it and more interested in how the mythology serves the characters. Personally, I prefer it that way; as weird as things may get, revelations never overwhelm the character work. But that won't be the same for everybody. The answers to the big questions only end up raising even more questions, which will certainly upset many who prefer their mysteries wrapped up in a nice box and topped with a big bow, with Peele asking audiences to just run with what he reveals for the sake of just enjoying the story at hand.
As I said, that's an attitude I appreciate when the story he's telling as a whole is so strong. To use a recent example, consider 2014's It Follows, which featured characters being plagued by a supernatural being passed through sexual intercourse. On the surface, it's a great idea, and provides the film's characters a clear dilemma to deal with as the being is always coming to kill the last person it's been passed off to. But when you start to really scratch at the surface of the logic behind it – i.e. What happens if one of its targets hops on a plane and moves across the globe? Can the being swim or walk underwater? – the whole premise becomes a little flimsier. But because everything else about It Follows is pretty solid, at least in my opinion, it's easy to overlook how simple it is to poke holes in its premise for the sake of getting sucked up in an entertaining film.
The same goes for Us. Its revelations in its last act will provide for a lot of fun conversation in the weeks to come about the finer details of it all, and certainly there will be just as many amongst people eager to use that as a weapon against the film as a whole, but it's ultimately not the point. In many ways, Us has a toe dipped in a pool of dark fantasy, and once the puzzle pieces are put together and those very revelations are laid bare, it's made even clearer that that’s the case. The house of mirrors haunting Adelaide has Merlin plastered on its facade, while its inner workings are themed like a spooky, cliché forest. Red talks of princesses and shadows, of good and evil, of light and darkness, all of which goes hand in hand with fantasy and fairy tales.
At one point, when asked why this is happening and who they are, Red responds by simply stating, "We're Americans." If Get Out tackled issues surrounding racial politics, then Us has something to say about the class divide. Exactly how would be to enter too deeply into spoiler territory, but that social commentary that Peele layers into the film, of the divide between an ignorant, content upper class and a forgotten, unhappy lower class fits neatly into the dash of fantasy at the heart of the film, of the very grey area in which good and evil do battle and where light and darkness clash, of where our sins come home to roost.
All this is to say that Us, like Get Out, is trying to be something more and – even better – succeeds in doing so. It hits all the boxes to satisfy horror fans, with shocks that had my audience screaming, gasping, and nervously laughing, but Peele knows that that's not enough to leave a mark. Horror films are a dime a dozen, disposable and easy to forget by the time the next one rolls along. As familiar as some of its parts may be, Us assembles them in a way that feels invigorating. There are things I'll never forget about this movie, right down to its unsettling score by Michael Abels, and a scene in the final act set to a superbly creepy instrumental version of Luniz's "I Got 5 on It" is something that'll be rattling around in my brain for the foreseeable future.
For what my opinion is worth, Peele is two for two now. I loved Get Out, and now I adore Us. It's a film that fires on all cylinders, and I genuinely can't wait to revisit it again and again and to see where Peele takes us all next.
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