Us movie review: A groundbreaking horror film from Jordan Peele, a worthy follow-up to Get Out
Director - Jordan Peele
Cast - Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Rating - 4.5/5
Curiously, despite being a more traditional horror picture, Us, writer-director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the genre-fluid Get Out is an even more challenging experience.
Neck-deep in dense symbolism and metaphor, Us requires multiple viewings to simply be ingested - understanding it would perhaps require multiple more. From an early shot of caged rabbits, to the sight of a masked child scurrying about on all fours, to the potent image of a black woman in handcuffs, Us is an ambiguously ambitious chiller upon which audiences can project their deepest fears. Nothing can be scarier.
It’s part home invasion thriller, part body swap drama, part Ira Levin-esque psychological satire. Peele’s second film is a bolder artistic statement than Get Out, and one of the finest examples of untethered (forgive the pun) studio filmmaking.
Watch the Us trailer here
The film opens with ominous titles informing the viewer that “there are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental US,” and that “many have no known purpose at all.” As this information suggests, slavery is indeed invoked - and not just through the image of a chained Lupita Nyong’o, but also through the ideas of divisionism and duality that Peele is playing with.
The opening scene is a flashback to 1986. A young girl strays away from her family during a nighttime beach outing, and runs into a doppelgänger of herself. The experience rattles her, forcing her parents to seek professional help for the child, who has retreated into a shell.
Years later, in the present day, a now grown-up Adelaide Thomas (played by Lupita) is returning to the place of her childhood trauma, with her own family, including a daughter who is the same age as she was when she experienced the incident. Her husband, Gabe, is played by Winston Duke, and is a classic example of a black man caught between two worlds - his own cultured upbringing and the more nefarious reputation of his people, with whom he has no real connection other than a shared past.
This duality literally manifests itself when an entire family of doppelgängers arrives at the Thomas’ doorstep. They are led by Red, a now grown up version of the girl Adelaide encountered in her youth. She is also played by Lupita, in a horror movie performance that will sadly go unnoticed at the awards, just like Emily Blunt’s in A Quiet Place and Toni Collette’s in Hereditary.
In one of the film’s finest scenes - which exemplifies Peele’s command over tone, pacing and structure - Red, the only one among the family of doppelgängers who can speak, chillingly deadpans the answer to the question, “Who are you people?”
“We are Americans,” she says, and then pauses for effect. Suddenly, the film’s title makes sense. It’s not only about ‘us’ and ‘them’ but also about the ‘US’, and how the Greatest Superpower in the World has deluded itself into believing that its problems are external.
Red explains to Adelaide, in a screechy, bone-chilling voice that sounds like nails across an old mirror - mirrors being the recurring motif here, visually, sonically and thematically - that she belongs to a population of doppelgängers called the Tethered. The Tethered, she says, were created by the government and have spent their entire lives living underground, mirroring - there you go again - the actions of the more privileged, surface-dwelling populace. This is a revolution.
That it happens during what was supposed to be a summer vacation is Peele once again stressing, as he did with the idyllic countryside setting of Get Out, that the concept of paradise is a lie. It’s almost a coded message from the inside, to let us all know that the country that we’ve grown up admiring is broken.
But this is merely one way to interpret Us. Besides a horrific musical cue that evokes memories of The Omen’s Ave Satani theme, there are also recurring references to the Bible, the most common being signs that read ‘Jeremiah 11:11’. After appreciating yet another mirror motif, I Googled it, only to discover what is possibly the scariest Bible passage ever. Here it goes: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, ‘Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.’”
This verse not only serves as foreshadowing of the uprising, but also paints Red as a Messiah figure of sorts. Us blurs the lines between ‘villain’ and ‘hero’ - perhaps another way in which Peele deconstructs the horror genre, while kneeling in its church at the same time. Characters often scarper off screen when they should be staying put, and they stay put when they should be scarpering off screen; Adelaide spends an excruciatingly long time trying to convince Gabe that the danger Red poses is real - all of this is classic horror movie stuff.
And Us is a classic horror movie - perhaps the best since Get Out. It’s mythologically dense - you can tell - and has important things to say about religion, capitalism, greed, masculinity, cinema, race and more waiting to be discovered. Let us begin.