Having already staked out his place in the horror pantheon with his feature directing debut, the excellent and unsettling Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele fortifies his position with his remarkable follow-up, the ambitious and uncompromising Us.
‘Ambitious and uncompromising,’ of course, can be read as ‘not for everyone,’ and fair enough — while the critical consensus has been overwhelmingly positive and the box office hugely impressive (over $70m in the U.S. opening weekend), reviews have frequently been qualified with reservations, and a few lonely voices have straight-up disliked the film outright. That’s nothing to be worried about, though. Indeed, that means everything is working as intended. Us is a deliberately weird piece, one that invites multiple, often conflicting interpretations, and that’s going to frustrate viewers who want concrete, nailed-down explanations, causes, and even themes in their fiction.
You should still go and see it, and you should go and see it knowing as little as possible — this is a film with some powerful surprises that are best found in the wild rather than exposed in a think piece, and we need to do at least a little exposing here just for analytical purposes. There’s no guarantee you’ll love it, or even enjoy it — although I had an absolute blast — but you’ll be challenged by it, and that’s a rare treat at the multiplexes right now.
Us could have been a fairly standard home invasion thriller in the mode of The Strangers (2008), and for a while there it looks like, a creepy wrinkle aside, that’s what it’s going to be. Our protagonists are the Wilsons, an affluent black family — mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), dad Gabe (Winston Duke), teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son Jason (Evan Alex) — whose summertime stay at their Santa Cruz beach house (the place The Lost Boys (1987) was filmed — Peele loves his metatextual nods and flourishes) is interrupted by the appearance of four strangers outside the house in the dead of night.
The ‘creepy wrinkle’ is, as the marketing material has already shown, that the malevolent strangers are doppelgängers of the Wilsons, here for some terrible and at first unknowable purpose. Gabe’s mirror is a hulking, inarticulate brute, Zora’s a grinning sadist, Jason’s a scarred and crawling pyromaniac, and Adelaide’s is their vengeful matriarch, come to rain hell into Adelaide’s life for … well, that would be telling.
Honestly, if Us had just kept to this tight, inexplicable nightmare scenario, it would have been great enough. Peele is not a dilettante, he’s a serious student of horror, and it shows in the way he constructs his scenes and set pieces, building tension, ratcheting suspense, eventually releasing it with catharsis or humour or both (the connection between comedy and horror is well-trod ground — you can make up your own hot take vis-à-vis Peele’s comic background if you wish).
He’s also smart enough to know that the best horror is an exercise in empathy, and so he takes his time to build up Us’s protagonist/ victims as fully rounded, likable people with foibles, quirks, and recognizable relationship dynamics. His cast does an amazing job of this, and the quality of their work is even more apparent when you consider that they’re each playing two roles, and each role is both marked different and tangibly congruent.
Nyong’o gives the stand-out performance, of course. Adelaide and her doppelgänger get the majority of the screen time, and the bulk of the dialogue (indeed, doppelgänger, or ‘Tethered,’ as the film terms it, Adelaide is the only antagonist who speaks clearly), and Nyong’o excels in both roles. It is queasily unsettling to see these two characters, each played by the same performer, converse, one a normal woman, the other a croaky-voiced, clearly horribly traumatized, and incredibly dangerous creature, and marvel at what different experiences brought them each to where they are, and how Nyong’o embodies both so completely.
That’s of paramount importance, as our empathic position is tested and questioned as the film’s scope opens up and it becomes apparent that what is happening is not restricted to the Wilsons, although their experience is both central and causal here. When, in a bravura and shocking moment, it becomes clear that the Tethered are rising up everywhere, Us goes from being a well-made quasi-slasher to something of grander ambitions.
There’s going to be a lot of ink spilled over Us’s subtext. The exact nature of the Tethered is left ambiguous (the origin we’re given late in the film comes from an unreliable source and is frayed around the edges to boot), but this is, in the broad strokes, the story of an underclass rebellion. You can read it as a critique of capitalism, a commentary on fears of socialism (the red jumpsuits the Tethered wear are very ‘workers of the world’), an exploration of Jung’s notion of the shadow self, and more. Notions of identity are highlighted — not just the ideas of racial identity that were foregrounded in Get Out, but broader, deeper notions about who we are, who we say we are, and the elements of our personas that we hide away.
Us doesn’t offer fixed answers; rather, it invites exploration, which will excite some and bug the hell out of others. We’re on unsteady, shifting ground for much of the film’s running time, and the answers we are given tend to be not wholly satisfactory, opening up further questions. The Tethered are shadows, and they’re made of shadow-stuff — the short answer to where they really come from is ‘inside us,’ and the answer to what they want is ‘everything we have.’
Which is, all other considerations aside, a timely fear. Paranoia about wealth inequality, immigration and refugees, climate migration and more is at an all-time high, and a horde of people who look just like us coming to shove us out of our own lives because they have nothing is a powerful image — it’s an irrational fear, but a primal one.
Indeed, the primal level is where Us does its best work. It’s a fever dream of a film — not as illusory or deranged as Dario Argento’s weirder stuff or Lynch’s wild rides, but at times more upsetting because it teases us with the possibility of explanation before tearing it away. We have to build our own meaning out of the pieces given to us, which means we have to work with Us to make sense of the world — about as fitting a metaphor to end on as I can imagine.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Us is released through Universal Pictures Australia