Although the film asks us to hold a mirror up to ourselves, it is simultaneously a mirror of Peele himself, a genre fanatic who finds the worst demons not in his imagination but in our reality.
Jordan Peele has big shoes to fill, mostly because he crafted a pair of gigantic shoes with Get Out. A horror film riddled with clever symbols and sharp commentary, Get Out unleashed a side of Peele’s creativity that the world had yet to see. But perhaps it is unfair to bring it up. Peele has stressed that Us is a different kind of nightmare, to which I say both yes and no. Yes, it is different insofar as it is a more typical, though not in any way cliched, horror film. No, it is not different since Peele remains the same, if somewhat more enigmatic, social critic who reveals the disturbing in the ordinary, hides his burning concerns in plain sight, and demands the audience contend with his complex web of thoughts in a nonetheless thrilling film.
A family of four are enjoying a perfect holiday, which, if you have ever seen a horror movie, means that their holiday is about to go terribly wrong. The mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is the first to sense something ominous. She is haunted by a childhood incident that she believes will entail tragedy for her family. Her husband Gabriel (Winston Duke) tries to comfort her and yet their nightmare has already arrived. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wielding golden scissors, the family’s doppelgängers terrorise the family, evoking the familiar “trapped in a cabin” scenario yet bursting with relentless tension and topped with a relieving dose of humour.
Peele is indeed a masterful writer. The fear mounts gradually and endlessly as he transitions between each character’s battle with their doppelgänger. His humour is timed with utmost precision, never detracting from the narrative and constantly aided by the cast’s brilliant delivery. Nyong’o is worth spotlighting here for both her performances. Adelaide goes from kind to afraid to tough to brutal, an emotional arc that Nyong’o exudes with clarity and, when the scene calls for it, perturbing ambiguity. It is even more incredible that Red, Adelaide’s doppelgänger, is played by Nyong’o too. Red, with her meticulous actions and disquieting raspy voice, is in many ways the exact opposite of Adelaide. Nyong’o makes Red an unforgettable presence, the matriarch of the terror with some cunning subtleties up her sleeve.
But if the film wishes to say one thing, it is that Red is not that different from Adelaide or, more broadly, us versus them is a vague and distracting distinction. One may be tempted to declare “we are our worst enemy,” tie a bow on it and pretend like we deciphered the film, but Peele is too smart and sophisticated to be contained by such a phrase. Peele asks what makes us our worst enemy? What part of us are we suppressing? And why does America seem to be the perfect target for confronting these questions? These are overwhelming questions and near the end you can feel Peele strain to address them all. The result is a somewhat convoluted ending, diluting key moments in a cacophony of narrative twists. But one can only fault Peele so far. The packed ending is more than compensated for by everything that precedes it, and even the narrative juggling, albeit excessively jumbled, always has an underpinning purpose. If Peele gets too ambitious with his project, it is only because his concerns are too pressing to be dismissed.
Let us not let Peele take all the credit. His vision comes to life with the help of a fantastic cast and crew. Duke gives his dual performances with just as much control and range as Nyong’o, but the undeservedly less mentioned stars are Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, who play the daughter and son respectively. Horror movies have always been fascinated with children and teenagers, either as innocent individuals (think The Sixth Sense) or as sources of evil (think The Omen). Us is one of the few films where the young ones are both. Joseph and Alex give their non-doppelgänger selves every bit of real emotion, while their menacing counterparts behave like walking, or crawling, signs of danger. At some point, you forget that the doppelgängers are children and just see them as horror in motion.
The composer Michael Abels, who also composed for Get Out, is no less of a contributor. Abels turns vocals and strings into vessels of unease, so that even if you look away — trust me, I did many times – there is no evading the dread. When you do choose to look, what is most striking is how gorgeously frightening the film looks. The cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is no stranger to fear-inducing camerawork. His previous work in Split is particularly noteworthy for maximising suspense in a mostly confined setting. In this film, Gioulakis continues his affinity for sharp silhouettes and unforgiving tracking shots, adding to the inescapable atmosphere of apprehension. In the climactic fight between a character and their doppelgänger, the two engage in a ruthless ballet of life and death, their silhouettes charging against each other in an adeptly shot and indescribably tense sequence.
Perhaps the most perplexing shot is the final one, which, without spoiling anything, inevitably brings us back to Peele’s social commentary. The explicit cultural reference that Peele makes is, well, explicit, but I can’t be the only one who saw an uncanny, though most likely unintended, resemblance to this (mild spoilers if you click). In Peele’s film, no object is meaningless and no shot is innocent. Even the music, especially a song played in the middle as a joke, seems to have a heavy political undercurrent. Although the film asks us to hold a mirror up to ourselves, it is simultaneously a mirror of Peele himself, a genre fanatic who finds the worst demons not in his imagination but in our reality.