Every once in a very long while, a film comes along that completely defies expectations. Too often, movies are over-hyped. It’s not that the film itself is bad, it’s just that every media outlet, every person with a Twitter account, and every online review keeps telling you it’s going to be the most incredible thing you’ve ever seen in your whole goddamn life.
All of this is not to say that Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature is indeed The Most Incredible Thing I’ve Ever Seen, but I’ve been sitting on this film for a week now, running it beginning to end through my mind repeatedly, trying desperately to remember every tiny piece of the intricate puzzle, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I walked away from a movie feeling just as, if not more, hyped about it as I did when I entered the theatre. No film is flawless and Us is no exception, but what imperfections it contains are relatively minor and do little to detract from the overall narrative.
Supported by exceptional direction, cinematography, and acting, Us is at once a surreal story about a family struggling to survive in an apocalyptic setting and a multi-layered commentary on some of the darker aspects of American society. The beauty of it is that, while there are certain concrete themes, the film’s overall message can be interpreted different ways by different people. That isn’t a sign of too many loose ends or clumsy storytelling. On the contrary, Us achieves what the likes of Lost ultimately failed to accomplish: it answers enough of the questions it asks to make a cohesive narrative, tying up the right plot strings so that the story ends with a sense of closure, while still leaving enough to the imagination to give us something to chew on once the credits roll. Peele wants his audience to think.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
The film opens on a child, Adelaide, who has wandered away from her parents at an amusement park in Santa Cruz and suffered a traumatic experience. Years later, she returns as an adult (played by the stunning Lupita Nyong’o, who deserves every award for her entrancing dual performance) with her family and becomes increasingly anxious that the ghosts from her childhood will come back to haunt her.
One night, the family is terrorized by deranged doppelgängers – menacing carbon copies of themselves who want nothing more than to rip them out of the cozy, happy life of which they, in the eyes of their assailants, are wholly undeserving. What initially seems like a pointed attack on this particular family, given the link between their appearance and Adelaide’s childhood, is soon revealed to be a nation-wide nightmare. Everyone has a doppelgänger – the Tethered, they are called, as their existence has henceforth been bound to and unknowingly controlled by that of their doubles. Now they’re determined to sever the ties that bind them and take their place in the sun.
As the story unfolds, Peel subtly explores class and privilege in American society. It’s important to note that while the Tethered are ostensibly the antagonists of the story, they are also victims, the result of a government-sanctioned experiment gone wrong and subsequently abandoned, covered up and forgotten. Like Frankenstein’s “monster,” they are not inherently monstrous – at least, no more so than we ourselves are – but, forsaken by their creators, they are isolated and disenfranchised. In a different environment, with more opportunity and privilege, the exact same people thrive while the Tethered grow distorted and deranged in the shadows. The actions of those at the top directly affect the lives of those at the bottom – quite literally. One of the film’s most haunting visuals if of young Adelaide performing ballet, while below Red echoes her movements in a twisted, broken dance of her own.
This theme of duality becomes especially clear when the “twist ending” exposes Adelaide’s true identity. Again, the question of privilege is raised, highlighting how differently trauma affects children from affluent families and children who don’t have access to adequate mental healthcare. By trading places with Adelaide, Red proves that with the right opportunities, the Tethered are just like the rest of us. Nurture over nature.
The build-up to the twist is executed beautifully. (Of course, there are naysayers who whine that it was “predictable” or that they “saw it coming” from the beginning – maybe they did see it coming, but so what? Don’t let them suck the fun out of this film.) There’s that moment at the end when you just go, “oh,” as it clicks in your mind and the subtle hints leading up to it suddenly make sense. The film will absolutely require multiple viewings to catch all of the Easter eggs dropped along the way. Peele’s most effective foreshadowing tool is color; strategically placed blues, yellows, and, most importantly, reds make up the vibrant cinematic palette.
Us is a masterful blend of various sub-genres: home invasion, apocalyptic/survivalist horror, science fiction. Peele’s directorial presence is very much his own, but his influences are – intentionally, it would seem – very present. There are moments of Hitchcockian suspense and nightmarishly surreal imagery that David Lynch could be proud of. (The Tethered incarnation of Elisabeth Moss’ character is especially evocative of Laura Palmer in the Black Lodge.)
But most of all, the film has all the makings of a feature-length episode of the Twilight Zone. If Get Out wasn’t enough to convince you that Peele is a more than worthy successor to Rod Serling’s legacy, watch Us. It tells the kind of story that was the anthology series’ trademark: a fantastical, often frightening tale with a thread of social commentary that aims to provoke a greater awareness of the darker sides of our own nature.
The message of Us is much the same as “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street:” the real horror doesn’t come from outer space, from Hell, or from a subterranean tunnel network. It’s here. It has always been right here.