- MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD -
Jordan Peele, in his sophomore film following the immense and cultural success of Get Out, is back with Us - a film that follows Adelaide Wilson and her family as they try to vacation in Santa Cruz but are met with chaos and terror. And of course, Santa Cruz is absolutely the best setting for a story like this. What other ‘sleepy beachside town’ will capture the class/racial undertones of this film better than the very racist and very classist sleepy beachside town of Santa Cruz? It is here at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk that a young Adelaide was traumatized for life in ways she, nor we, ever could’ve ever imagined. That trauma resurfaces as the Wilson family is faced with a family of their own doppelgängers who are out to murder them. They, alongside the rest of the world’s doppelgängers, don matching red jumpsuits and wield murderous gold scissors as they join hands across America to take over what belongs to them. As a horror movie, Us is rightfully terrifying and absolutely haunting; it becomes a chilling tale about the haves and have-nots and the duality of our own humanity.
Inspired by horror movies of the past and his own personal fear of doppelgängers, Peele pieces together an altogether new kind of horror. Us is scary, for sure, in the way that The Shining was terrifying. You are haunted by the thought of it for days after the movie is over. It is as much a psychological thriller as it is a horror movie, but it’s somehow more cerebral than that? For much of the movie, the Wilson family is trying to escape the doppelgängers and Adelaide, as the film’s true hero, goes on a quest to not only find her son Jason who gets kidnapped, but also discover what truly happened to her in her youth. The goal of the doppelgängers, as narrated by Adelaide’s counterpart, Red, is to take back their humanity of the regular world - it is revealed that the ‘Tethered’ shadows were government experiments forced to inhabit the abandoned tunnels of America’s underworld when the scientists realized they couldn’t make complete human clones. They were left to only be able to mimic the actions of their above-world counterparts and eat raw rabbit meat. But in a shocking reveal at the end of the movie, we realize that Adelaide is actually the real ‘Tethered’ who kidnapped the real young Adelaide (Red) all this time, and it is the real young Adelaide that was forced to grow up in this dark underworld and later departed it with the rest of the Tethered as an act of murderous revenge.
There’s a lot that Peele juggles in Us and with minor pacing issues in the first act, the narrative starts to become shaky when too much exposition and most of the action comes in all at once in the second act with the doppelgänger family’s introduction. Upon a second viewing (which is absolutely required), you can start to see some of the inconsistencies with Adelaide and Red’s backstories, which are very present but still relatively minor. There isn’t a super clear-cut thematic message like there was in Get Out, but this is intentional from Peele’s writing as he left it vague enough for audiences to project their own ideas into the film. At the most basic, the Tethereds could be stand-ins for society’s most marginalized groups who are forced to live down under while the up-above humans live life in ignorant bliss. But the most interesting take-aways I’ve seen are from Black critics and journalists who suggest Us is an adaptation on double consciousness, as coined by W.E.B. Du Bois. It is meant to be an adjacent story on race to Get Out. Just by that interpretation alone, it is extremely easy to forgive the minor writing flaws in Us in favor of its much more deeper contextual meaning. (But also - even if there isn’t an intentional deeper metaphoric meaning in this horror film, that is A-OK too!)
What truly carried the film for me, and has pushed this film ahead of Get Out in my personal taste, were the game-changing performances by everyone in the cast, but especially Lupita Nyong’o. Her performance as both Adelaide and Red is spine-chilling and downright terrifying and honestly unfathomable? The terror she builds with the way she carries herself as both characters is enough to keep you up late at night. Her voice, my god! She is playing both the hero and the villain and does so impeccably, especially in one of most poetic scenes in the film as she dances her way through an abandoned tunnel. For as scary as the film truly is, Peele doesn’t forget to relieve that tension with his comedic talents and with Winston Duke’s performance as Fun Dad Gabe, (but also bearded doppelgänger Abraham). Standouts for me definitely include Shahadi Wright Joseph as the family’s teenaged daughter Zora who is so convincing as both the sarcastic teen and as the doppelgänger Umbrae who I would argue looks even scarier than Red. And Evan Alex delivers a just-as-promising performance playing both the family’s young son Jason and his doppelgänger Pluto. I also want to do a shout-out to Madison Curry who delivers one of the film’s scariest visuals as young Adelaide/Red.
With Us grossing $71.1M in box office revenues in a single weekend alone, Jordan Peele has absolutely solidified his place as one of Hollywood’s most innovative and creative filmmakers. He’s become a sort of cinematic auteur by way of Stanley Kubrick - but is obviously 1000 times better as a person, as a creator, and as a team member in his ability to not only create stunning visual shots but also write some of the most complex characters for Black actors working right now.