Warning: This review contains spoilers.
With his debut feature Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele announced himself as a horror filmmaker in the grand tradition of George A. Romero and Larry Cohen, savvily using the genre to interrogate American social issues. The film was perfectly scary, but its ingeniousness lay in its satirical streak. Peele dramatized common fears among various minority groups about assimilation into and appropriation by the dominant white culture, mining the subjects for discomforting laughs before turning the story into more unsettling territory. But even when Get Out became a full-fledged horror film, Peele didn’t lose sight of its guiding theme of white people using a range of ploys to entrance and ultimately subordinate people of color. Released around the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the movie became a social phenomenon, touching a raw nerve in the culture and making loads of money in the process.
In short, Peele had a tough act to follow, and the smartest thing about his second feature, Us (now playing in wide release), is that it doesn’t try to repeat the formula of Get Out. The film, like its predecessor, is centered around a metaphor, but that metaphor is more open-ended, harder to pin down. Peele’s imagery carries a wealth of associations; the movie doesn’t encourage the sort of straight-ahead reading that Get Out did. This ambiguity is something of a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Us isn’t a funny, cathartic crowd-pleaser like Peele’s debut. (Where the audience with whom I saw Get Out cheered or screamed at every twist, the crowd at the theater where I saw Us on opening night was far more subdued.) On the other, it achieves an insidious, lingering effect that’s rarer in the horror genre.
Us begins with three separate framing devices, each of which opens up a possible reading of what’s to follow. First comes a title card informing the audience that there are thousands of miles of unused underground passageways in the United States; Peele uses ominous language to hint at something devious lurking beneath the surface of American life. Next comes a TV promo from 1986 about the nationwide charity benefit Hands Across America. Peele maintains the ominous tone of the title card, slowly zooming into a vintage TV set that’s playing the ad and which has stacks of VHS tapes arranged around it with eerie neatness. Again, Peele intimates an unseen devious presence, but he complicates the mood by foregrounding a call for unity. What are we to make of the juxtaposition? That the promise of Hands Across America (and other photogenic acts of public concern) is simply a cover-up for darker, unacknowledged impulses within our society? Peele returns to this idea, but only at the end of Us, leaving the audience to wait and see.
From there the film presents a dramatic prologue, set in 1986, in which the heroine, Adelaide (played effectively by newcomer Madison Curry), gets separated from her parents at a beachfront carnival in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide wanders near the ocean, then comes upon a fun house. Inside, she explores the hall of mirrors and encounters another little girl who looks exactly like herself. (Peele creates a nice surprise by making the stranger appear to be a reflection at first; some people in the audience when I saw the film jumped when the stranger turned around.) It’s an affecting moment that taps into the fear that a person may not have agency over their identity—that someone can be him- or herself and also a stranger. Peele leaves it up to the viewer to decide how this ties into the fears introduced in the other two framing devices, letting the ambiguity get under one’s skin.
The next half-hour of Us gives the audience time to chew over the ideas presented in the first ten minutes, as Peele builds a creepy atmosphere before getting to the next big scare. The least successful section of the film, the first act slowly introduces the primary characters, who aren’t particularly interesting or unique. Adelaide is now middle-aged (and played by Lupita Nyong’o), married to a genial man named Gabe (Winston Duke), and raising two kids, aloof teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and goofy younger son Jason (Evan Alex). Peele shows the family driving to their summer home—which happens to be in Santa Cruz—and ready to have a relaxing vacation. All that’s clear about these characters is that they have money and typical upper-middle-class social aspirations; Peele doesn’t reveal what the parents do for a living, what their backgrounds are like (apart from Adelaide’s traumatic experience as a girl), or where they live the rest of the year. All that matters is that they’re a well-adjusted black family, which Peele emphasizes for perhaps longer than he should. The director creates a compelling frisson between the normal on-screen behavior and the eerie visual aesthetic (lots of slow zooms and Steadicam shots reminiscent of Kubrick’s The Shining), but it wears out its welcome before the plot advances.
After a day at the beach, where the characters relax with some white family friends and Adelaide freaks out when she sees that the cursed fun house from her youth is still standing, the family returns to the summer home for the night. Adelaide is restless, her post-traumatic stress triggered by what she saw on the beach, and soon her worst fear emerges in the form of a family that resembles her own. The doppelgangers barge in and start terrorizing the protagonists, threatening them verbally before taking out pairs of very sharp scissors. With the exception of Adelaide’s double, none of the other doppelgangers speak—they communicate mainly in grunts, suggesting they come from some barbarian culture. The primitiveness of the doubles is one of the most evocative details of Us; it suggests, alternately, those aspects of a person that can’t be assimilated into polite society and the barbaric urges that society trains us to suppress.
The family’s grisly escape from their murderous doppelgangers makes for the lengthiest and most effective climax of Us. In fending off their demonic doubles, the family succumbs to their own worst instincts, becoming murderers themselves. This development suggests a sort of negative unity, with everyone joining together in a mutual ugliness. (The film will amplify this idea in its haunting final image.) Peele reiterates the notion when the family seeks help from their friends, only to find that the other family has been murdered by their own doppelgangers and that these brutes must be destroyed lest they kill again. Adelaide’s family proves surprisingly adept at getting rid of them. Eventually it turns out that a whole army of doubles is rising up from under the earth to declare war on aboveground society. Peele doesn’t make clear what the hordes want, and this ambiguity (as opposed to that with which he defines the principal characters) strengthens the film’s central metaphor. Do the doubles represent America’s suppressed underclass? Or perhaps the realization of a fear of society devolving into barbarism? Again, Peele doesn’t resolve the issue, forcing viewers to leave the theater with their fears intact. v