Can lightning strike twice? Apparently so, when it comes to the horror innovations of Jordan Peele.
“Us” is the director’s sophomore endeavor, following the immensely wild success of Peele’s first film, “Get Out.” Two films into what is sure to be a long and successful career and the weightiness of Peele’s work has others calling him the next Spielberg or Hitchcock.
While he is sure to go down in the annals of great horror auteurs, let’s get one thing straight: We shouldn’t be stating that Peele is destined to be the next Hitchcock. Rather, we should ask ourselves, “Will there ever be another Jordan Peele?”
But let’s get down to business. What about his latest film? Check out the official synopsis:
“A family’s serenity turns to chaos when a group of doppelgangers begins to terrorize them.”
More specifically, in 1986 a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) visits the Santa Cruz beach with her family. For a moment she slips away and finds herself lost in a hall of mirrors, where she encounters a little girl that is identical to herself… or perhaps a dark reflection. The experience absolutely terrorizes Adelaide.
Years later, Adelaide is grown and enjoying a vacation to her family beach house with her (fucking adorable) husband, Gabe, and their children. Adelaide is still fearful of the mysterious doppelganger that she encountered and these anxieties haunt her. The spectres of her fears become a reality in the form of a terrifying family of doppelgangers, hell-bent on destroying everything she loves.
Suffice to say, “Us” is damn interesting.
“Us” is written and directed by Jordan Peele and stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex, with Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Anna Diop filling out the supporting cast.
The film had its World Premiere on the opening night of the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, in beautiful Austin, TX, with Peele and the cast in attendance. Check out all of our great SXSW coverage for more on that!
That was a hell of an introduction, so let’s get to the review! There’s no major spoilers coming, but I will be diving in to the film. So beware.
There has been a lot of speculation on the message and intent of “Us” as Peele has left the film’s meaning intentionally ambiguous, referring to the piece as a social Rorschach test.
That being said, it appears that a very clear thesis of “Us” is the anxieties associated with the Other. Human nature is at odds with what is different. Beyond that, there is a very open and confrontational examination of privilege and social structure that speaks very boldly both on socioeconomic privilege and inequity, as well as privilege through the lens of race.
We get a view of a world that is a shadow to our own. Where individuals exactly like us are going through life, just as we do, but a darker version. A version lacking in agency, where everything is the same… just much harder and much worse.
The world of the Tethered gives off a sort of “separate but equal” vibe. We witness a system of people being born into a darker place with no advantage, where they live the same hard life as those that came before, and the chance of escaping is slim to none. The random circumstances of their birth have set them up for a life of suffering, where another is born in the sunlight and with the freedom that comes with the outside world.
More than just a discussion of privilege and its cyclic nature, it’s a warning of what happens when we turn our face away from the suffering of others.
In “Us,” this is perhaps best illustrated by the frequent reference to 1986’s Hands Across America campaign. I’ll leave you to do your own Googling on that one, but it’s essentially the equivalent of changing the filter on your Facebook profile picture for the sake of a cause. It is a shallow demonstration.
It’s hard to think about “Us” without also keeping “Get Out” in the back of one’s mind. In that first film, Peele tackled a very specific sort of systemic racism that is pervasive in the United States. In “Us,” he is turning his lens back to oppressive institutions (the government, in this film, being a sort of looming bad guy that isn’t really discussed but is always there) that make this sort of suffering possible.
Early in the film, Adelaide (Nyong’o) asks Red, her doppelganger, who she is. Red responds, “We’re Americans.” Shit. That just really sends a chill through you, when placed in the overall context of the film.
There are so many layers to peel back with “Us” and I’m sure with any additional viewing there will be more revealed. But “Us” is more than just a great piece for thematic speculation.
Every element of “Us” is masterfully crafted. I don’t often wax poetic about cinematography and lighting but DAMN is this film good looking.
This is the sort of film that lives and dies by its ability to create tension and that is best played out in how the shots are structured. There’s this great pattern in “Us” of focusing in on an actor’s face and leaving the background just a tad blurred. More importantly, leaving us to wonder “Did I really see something move back there?” Whether you’re watching the tortured expression of the performer or frantically scanning the background, it creates this delicious unease.
You don’t know it at the outset, but the title sequence slowly panning out to show walls of caged rabbits says more about the heart of this film than I can reasonably put into this review without spoiling everything. It gives me immense hope for Peele’s take on “The Twilight Zone.”
Lighting is not often something I pay much attention to, but it’s undeniable that Peele is working very deftly with his use of shadow and reveal. Some of the most crucial scenes in “Us” are shot with the characters in silhouette and shadow, stripping them of their individual identity and rather highlighting the duality of the Tethered and their surface world counterparts. Well done.
Of course, Peele has distinguished himself as a fantastic writer and storyteller, but what really makes “Us” a distinguished example is that he’s working to convey a very complex concept and emotional depth without using very much dialogue at all. If you’ve sat in a film class, you’ve often heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell” with respect to filmmaking. Happy to report that Peele was in class that day and is killing it.
If the premise and execution in “Us” isn’t enough to draw you in, you can’t help but be seduced by the intentionality of every detail.
Reference and homage is just as large a part of Peele’s work as his own creation. Music is huge in “Us” and it’s a music lover’s delight to hear the unique arrangements (a cryptic version of “I Got 5 On It” being a favorite of this particular critic). And if you’re watching very closely at the beginning, Peele very clearly lays out what’s in store with a well placed VHS copy of “C.H.U.D.”
Just a few examples of the many Easter eggs hidden in “Us.”
But the bread and butter of “Us” is the incredible cast and their performances. In this arena, Nyong’o absolutely dominates in her dual role as Adelaide and Red. The range. The precision. The horror. The heartbreak. She’s just THAT good.
Duke, as Gabe, is an absolute joy. He’s so goddamn precious and injects much needed comedic balance into the film.
To be honest, there isn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble, which is damn impressive when considering that each actor must play two very unique roles. Upon reflection, that’s why the performances in “Us” are so important.
It’s crucial that these doppelgangers be distinguishable as individuals. The Tethered are not just copies that resemble the originals in every way. They are individual people stripped of their agency and intended to live out a life that is not their own to decide. The work of the cast ensures that we feel that, and very deeply.
It’s so exciting to view “Us” and to know “Get Out,” and to be able to see a very distinct style emerge out of Peele’s body of work, so far.
Sunken places seem to be a recurring theme. Could this be the crux of it all?
Now, more so than after “Get Out,” do we see the very clear parallel of one version of the world that is bright and welcoming and another version, just within the periphery, that conceals a secret darkness.
This is a career to watch closely and one can’t help but view “Us” as one chapter in a much larger narrative. I’m here for it.
“Us” is a truly impressive piece of work that can be enjoyed just as much a fun horror film as it is a focal point for larger discussion. I highly recommend it.
“Us” is in theaters now!
Featured image credit: Universal
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.