Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Not long after Us was released Jordan Peele premiered his revival of The Twilight Zone. While the reception was somewhat mixed and the show’s quality tended to vary with each episode (which, to be fair, has almost always been the case with anthologies), it left no doubt in my mind that he is the 21st century successor to Rod Serling. First with Get Out and now his sophomore outing as a filmmaker, Peele has displayed a dazzling genius for counterpointing personal drama with surreal concepts, all in service of delivering a larger message about society and morality. While Us is categorically a different kind of film from the dark, racially-focused satire that Get Out was, there are parallels and contrasts that are worth observing. Both are films that delve into the tumultuous state of the American condition, both depict Kafkaesque nightmares that border on the paranormal, and both convey their narratives using the language of horror cinema. Where they differ the most is that Get Out had such an alarming clarity to its vision and themes whereas Us is a messier film that seems concerned with more abstract and intangible ideas than its predecessor, the nature of which are not as immediately apparent (which isn’t necessarily a weakness). Us is also more explicitly a horror than it is a comedy; the film is a frightening home invasion thriller with a sinister Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist in which we are revealed to be our own worst enemies.
Peele wastes no time in getting things started on as ominous a note as he can possibly conjure. The opening statement announces that “there are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental U.S.” and that “many have no known purpose at all”. With that unsettling detail of a lost, mysterious chapter in recent American history, the film moves on to a scene in Santa Cruz in 1986. A little girl (Madison Curry) is on a day out with her family at the funfair, trying to enjoy the games and attractions while her parents bitterly bicker at every opportunity. She eventually wanders off while her Dad is distracted and happens upon an empty hall of mirrors by the stranded beach. The inside is dark and deserted enough that any kid would be creeped out by the warped and twisted reflections within, but the girl ends up seeing something far more disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that we aren’t allowed a proper glimpse at this point. Peele instead shows us the little girl’s shocked, eye-widening reaction, then immediately cuts to the main titles, where the camera slowly zooms out from the image of a caged rabbit to reveal it as just one among many. What has actually happened and what does the strange text and imagery even mean? You’ll have to watch to find out. And even then you still might not have a clear answer.
The film picks up with a now grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) on holiday with her sweet lunk of a husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children, bratty daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and oddball son Jason (Evan Alex). The Wilson family is bound for their lake house in Santa Cruz, where Adelaide had her distressing episode all those years ago, and the traumas of that memory are beginning to resurface. The summer house itself is pleasant enough and the other family members certainly enjoy themselves as they make for the beach with their wealthy and rather one-dimensional (intentionally so) friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), but Adelaide is far too apprehensive to relax with them. When Jason wanders off and Adelaide realises that they are within a stone’s throw of that same hall of mirrors, she erupts into a full-blown panic until her ingenuous son reappears, completely unharmed. That night Adelaide’s fears prove not to be unfounded when a family of four, identical to their own in almost every way, appears on their doorstep dressed in uniform red jumpsuits, wielding oversized, golden scissors, and scarcely making a move or even a sound. Who these people are, beyond being uncanny doppelgängers of the Wilsons, and exactly what they want is yet to be revealed, but the harm they intend on Adelaide and her family is immediately clear.
Each actor in this film must perform double duty, playing not only their given characters but also their respective doppelgängers. This point merits emphasis because the performances are so transformative you can scarcely believe that they come from the same individuals. Yet what makes the duality so disturbing is how closely each double reflects their counterpart like those warped funhouse mirrors. It’s Dr. Jekyll’s evil alter ago brought to terrifying life en masse; the ‘Tethered’, as they call themselves, are the living manifestations of our greatest insecurities, anxieties and fears. They are “us”, as Jason so rightly observes and, after living entire lifetimes of neglect and malnourishment, they’ve come to exact a vengeful reckoning. Each actor rises to the task of playing their twisted selves, Duke as a lumbering hulk, Joseph as a gleefully homicidal menace, and Alex as a rabid pyromaniac. Nyong’o meanwhile is performing on a whole other level as Red, the wrathfully calculating mother figure and the only one of the Tethered who can speak. Croaking her words in a deep, suffocated voice, she talks in fables and riddles of the bloody vendetta their people have come to wreak. Her deeply, agonisingly expressive deliveries and perverse body language are so eerie, so full of aching pathos while still remaining so inscrutable and otherworldly, that to call it a great performance seems inadequate. Nyong’o’s acting feat, both physical and emotional, is nothing short of superhuman.
There’s more going on here than psychological horror though. The allusions to all those forgotten tunnels beneath the ground, the recurring motif of the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 (a passage that promises divine punishment), and also the references to Hands Across America, a national, Reagan-era charity event where millions of people held hands across the breadth of the country to fight hunger and homelessness; there’s a political statement here that Peele is trying to make. It’s not an accident that the title Us also happens to be the acronym for United States. “We’re Americans”, says Red when asked who they are and it speaks to a larger truth beyond its most simple, literal sense (which is explained at length in the third act). They are an underclass; a marginalised, voiceless, forgotten many living in the shadows and the dark corners of the world. They embody our most violent and hateful impulses and they reflect an unsavoury, repellent side of history, society and culture that the human race has worked hard to bury so that they need never be confronted. They aren’t some foreign, alien threat who have conspired from afar to bring about the country’s doom nor are they mindless monsters moving without method or motive. They are “us”; the incarnation of our most destructive and detestable instincts and the greatest threat we face in the world today.
The idea that humanity is its own worst enemy is apt for a film where sometimes Peele is the victim of his own vision. While his skills as a horror director are as masterful as ever, Us is such a thematically dense film that it can sometimes feel like he’s lost his way as he attempts to tie all things together into a single, coherent whole. As everything between the Wilsons and their Tethered opposites come to a head and it starts to feel like the movie ought to start wrapping things up, the film keeps on going. We’re then treated to some exposition where many of our most pressing questions are given answers but, even then, the film keeps on going until it feels like Peele is trying too hard to make the metaphor work. It’s not that the ending is bad or that the point of it all gets completely lost, it’s more like the overall vision Peele has for this film isn’t as wholly realised and perfectly self-contained as it was in Get Out and it’s all he can do to keep the thematic house of cards he’s built from collapsing under the weight of its own convolutedness or the pressures of scrutiny. Again, this isn’t necessarily a fault with the film. In fact, there’s something about its imperfection that makes this film all the more terrifying; as if the reality of our lesser selves is as inescapable for those who made this film as it is for its characters.