Released 2019. Director: Jordon Peele
ONE COULD ONLY IMAGINE THE HUGE AMOUNT OF EXPECTATION and pressure on Jordon Peele to deliver after his directorial debut Get Out (2017) scored 4 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won Best Original Screenplay. His follow-up, Us, sees Peele replicating some of his winning formula to good use. A tense, brutal horror thriller as an allegory on socio-economic inequality.
The story starts in 1986 when 5-year-old Adelaide wanders away from her parents at an amusement park and encounters something bizarre and scary. If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you, But even an adult would be freaked out if it happened to you.
Having set the tone and mood from the first scene, Peele brings us to the present day when Adelaide, along with her husband and two kids, arrive at their vacation home, which happens to be at the vicinity of the same amusement park. Bad things will happen, and fast.
When the power goes out at night, that’s a bad sign. Then their young son Jason solemnly announces “there’s a family in the driveway.” What family? There they are, two adults, two kids, holding hands, silhouetted and standing still like statues, intimidating in their silence until they spring into action and break into the house, terrorizing the family clutching pairs of scissors.
What makes the ordeal more frightening is the appearance of the intruders, who look just like Adelaide’s own family. Who are they? They are doppelgangers but a nasty version. They look sinister, evil and murderous. They grunt and they act primal and instinctively. The boy even runs on all fours. ‘They’ and ‘Us’ – same but not the same. When a terrified Adelaide asks her mirror image, who is the only one capable of some speech “Who are you?” she answers in a hoarse, halting voice, “We’re Americans.” An unexpected answer, but one that unequivocally establishes Peele’s premise that this is a story about half of the U.S. rising to confront the other half.
Indeed, the movie is full of symbolism and metaphors, some direct, others elliptical. The endless tunnels underground where people live but nobody else sees. Lives that are invisible, trapped in a system doomed to repetition. The masks both boys wear. Hundreds of rabbits, some in cages, others running wild. An army of doppelgangers linking hands in a re-enactment of Hands Across America, a charity event in 1986 meant to bring relief to families in need. Did I miss anything? Yes, the red prison garb the intruders wear.
Peele has gone all out to make his point, but he doesn’t sacrifice action for message. The predator-prey killing spree lasts all night into daylight. Each character gets a close encounter with his or her counterpart. By separating the family, Peele gives us even more moments of terror when the focus is on one pair of characters at a time.
When the family manages to outrun and outsmart the intruders, don’t relax too much yet. This is merely the warm-up. Now that you’ve caught your breath, Peele ratchets up the dial and squeezes even more tension out of the same template when the family bangs on the door of their friend’s house, only to discover a crime scene more horrific than their own. Their affluent white friends didn’t even appear to have a chance at self-defence. In a two-storey house with glass balconies and creamy white carpet, bloodshed really stands out. Peele goes to town painting it red, you might say.
The dual personality set-up means opportunity for the cast to go really schizophrenic in their performances. One often talks about light and shade in acting. In the case of Us, it’s more like day and night. Lupita Nyong'o leads the way, shocked and protective as Adelaide, steady and scary as her doppelganger, with a flash of sadness and bitterness when she describes life of those who live unseen. This is Lupita’s movie, after all, as the twist is revealed and we learn the true identity of Adelaide. Her character, in both versions, adds to Peele’s long list of thematic allusions, specifically about suppressing your origins and forgetting your past.
Comparisons with Get Out are unavoidable. Both movies centre on building a mystery in the narrative. Both ask similar questions. Who are these people? What do they want? And the ultimate answer is the same. They want something in you, something of you. Both movies share related DNA, featuring families and outsiders tangled in a bloodied mess leaving behind dead bodies. Us, in the end, is less impactful as a sophomore effort whilst it establishes Peele’s directorial style and the kind of stories he wants to tell and how he wants to do it. In this case, socio-economic anxieties manifested as slasher horror.