Dir. Jordan Peele; Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
[4 out of 4 stars]
*This review contains spoilers. Consider yourself warned.*
“Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow.” So says Red, one of two characters played by Lupita Nyong’o in Us (2019), Jordan Peele’s newest feature which he wrote, directed, and produced. Peele’s spine-chilling story unfurls from the time-honored idea that encountering your doppelgänger, a German word from centuries-old folktales that warned of imminent death for those who encountered another version of themselves, is a shattering experience. Our lives are built around the belief that we are unique individuals with a singular understanding of the world, so facing off with a physical manifestation that calls that belief into question is at its best unsettling, and at its worst, deadly. Peele follows in the tradition of doppelgänger horror exemplified by the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and Possession (1981), using doubled performances by actors to explore how darkness dwells within all our lives. Peele specifically uses the doppelgängers in Us to scrutinize American identity, much like how David Lynch and Mark Frost did on Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) where doubling and doppelgängers showed the noxious underbelly of American life ((I find all of this particularly exciting after spending all fall writing a thesis about doppelgängers in Twin Peaks: The Return). Peele quite literally uses the tunnels under America, as well as his doppelgängers, to examine the same ideas about Americanness and our collective dark side — all this while also succeeding in making a first-rate bone-chiller of a film.
Us follows Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) as they take their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) on a family trip to Santa Cruz, one they have taken many times before. Adelaide is uncomfortable from the start for, as she reveals to Gabe, she came to Santa Cruz as a little girl, was separated from her family, and came face-to-face with her doppelgänger in a hall of mirrors. It traumatized her then, and though she has never spoken of it since, it still haunts her. Gabe doesn’t quite believe her, but he comes around rather quickly when a full deck of Wilson family doppelgängers arrives in the driveway of their vacation home and begins to terrorize the Wilsons. It is then, once the doppelgängers have entered the house and assembled an uncanny family meeting, that Red, Adelaide’s doppelgänger, tells the Wilsons the story of the Tethered, a class of doppelgängers who live in the countless abandoned tunnels below America, each a “shadow” of someone up above. What follows is the Wilson’s desperate attempts to escape their, and others’, doppelgängers, and avoid the deadly fate that awaits them if they fail to get away. Their getaway takes them all over Santa Cruz as they realize that the terror is larger than their one family.
Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017), showed the emergence of a formidable cinematic talent, and one of the many exciting things that Us delivers is proof that Peele has taken his skills to a new level. The opening scene where young Adelaide wanders off from her parents is a virtuosic piece of horror filmmaking. Adelaide and her parents are at a beachfront amusement park in Santa Cruz where her father is working on winning her a prize from one of the many flashy games. He successfully wins her a Michael Jackson “Thriller” t-shirt, one of the many explicit nods to dual identity and horror iconography, and the family walks along in the park. Her parents are lightly fighting, and Peele smartly puts his camera on Adelaide’s level as she surveys the park. All the flashing lights and screams from the rollercoasters begins to take on an unnerving edge paired with the tense dialogue from her parents drifting through the frame. They stop walking, and while mother goes to the bathroom and father plays “Whack-a-mole,” Adelaide wanders into a haunted house of mirrors. Inside, Peele does wonders with the setting, refracting the little girl through the mirrors, bathing her in shadow, and giving the whole place a sheen of green light. After stumbling through and trying to get out, she comes across an opening where we see the back of a little girl’s head with hair and clothing identical to Adelaide’s. Then it’s done. We cut to the present day sufficiently unnerved and with a tone of deep unease and tension.
The park and funhouse are simply the beginning of the spoils of filmmaking on display. Peele uses mirrors and shadows in the Wilson’s vacation house to build a sense of unease that breaks open when the doppelgänger family appears, and then he wastes no time ratcheting up the horror as they break into the house and begin terrorizing the Wilsons. Peele has a painterly precision to how he composes his shots, something that allows for a wonderful blend of humor and horror, building from the dynamic he used in Get Out. When the doppelgängers enter, they force the Wilsons to sit down in the living room with them, and Peele shows this in a medium-long shot that gives it the look of two families sitting down to chat before a dinner party. I found myself laughing because he used the utterly benign image of two families in a living room to house the first true face-off of the movie. Of course, the humor doesn’t stop there, and elsewhere Peele pairs his talent for dialogue with his eye for a fitting shot, such as when the Wilsons have just barely escaped a battle with a different family of doppelgängers that have killed the Wilsons’ friends. Adelaide comes to the car where Zora insists that she should drive since both parents are injured. Zora and Adelaide argue about who’s driving in a way that could have been pulled from any family movie, except that Zora’s rationale for driving, apart from the injuries, is that she has the highest “kill-count” in the family. All of a sudden a nuclear American family is arguing about who has killed the most doppelgängers. It is a wonderful comic touch, and also functions as a place for the audience to catch its breath before the chase continues.
What makes so much of Us work is that Peele has assembled an incredibly talented cast to play the Wilson clan, who are all willing to pull double time for the roles required. Wright Joseph and Alex are both sharp variations on the classic idea of children in horror movies, allowed to be both the object of horror, á la The Omen (1976) or The Exorcist (1973), and those trying to defeat it, more like “The Losers” of It (2017). Alex makes Jason’s doppelgänger Pluto the stuff of nightmares by making Pluto more animal than human, running around on all fours and growling. Wright Joseph plays Zora as a bona fide badass, killing doppelgängers with a golf club, and perfects a dead-eyed stare and smile for her double that would make Norman Bates proud. In a different vein, Duke uses the physicality that made him such an intimidating force as M’baku in Black Panther (2018) to imbue his doppelgänger Abraham with a brute strength, while making Gabe the most bumbling of movie fathers. He cracks terrible jokes and gets excited about the old boat he bought, providing the movie with a consistently goofy presence that makes the brutal Abraham all the more unsettling.
Nonetheless, as I’m sure will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen her act before, Us is Nyong’o’s movie. Her performance as Adelaide reminds me most of Sigourney Weaver’s turn as Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986): she is strong, determined, and has no time to mess around. As Adelaide becomes more and more unnerved by the return to Santa Cruz, Nyong’o makes her rising anxiety and subsequent terror at the re-discovery of the doppelgängers utterly convincing. In one scene when she opens up to Gabe about that night in the amusement park, she captures the tone of a woman who is terrified and trying desperately to stay calm so that Gabe can understand the extent to which she is unnerved. However, it is her performance as Red that is the most impressive part of the movie, and the most lasting terror Peele has shepherded forward yet. Red speaks in a strained and spasmodic pitch that makes it seem as though every word is painful, and she moves with a brutal elegance where no movement is wasted. Her eyes are stretched inhumanely wide, almost a call back to the look of terror Daniel Kaluuya introduced in Get Out, here modulated to be the terror. In the final showdown where Red and Adelaide fight it out underground in the Tethereds’ home, the dynamic of the two performances is on full display. Adelaide lashes out with rage and desperation while Red ducks and dodges with the precision of a trained fighter.
All things considered, the central thematic idea of Us seems to be that we all have our two sides, and that we do a good job of hiding away our most unsavory tenants until they come raging to life. Peele situates this as an utterly American issue, saturating the film with imagery of the empty Reagan Era gesture of “Hands Across America,” where Americans decided to hold hands across the country to bring awareness to homelessness. Transposing the image, Peele melds “Hands Across America” to the Tethered, a perverted version of the activism showing them coming above ground to reveal themselves and force the country to pay attention to them. That, and an M.-Night Shyamalan-level twist in the closing minutes, brings us to the central point Peele seems to be making. While Red and the Tethered are terrifying because we identify with the Wilsons, their revolt is in many ways something that should be celebrated. They are a subset of humanity that is kept below ground and treated as less than human, forced to eat raw rabbit and never see the light of day. Their actions may be bloody, but they act out of desperation as much as the Wilsons do. There is no simple way to draw lines of villainy and heroism here, and Peele has no interest in giving us an easy answer. Because of this, Us is an unsettling and challenging movie that solidifies Peele as one of the most exciting directors working today.