Us is an example of the most thematically and intellectually satisfying kind of horror movie. There is a razor-sharp critique of our society running right underneath – and often on the surface of – what is otherwise an unsettling, scary film in its own right. Just like his previous effort, Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele has something more on his mind with Us than scenes of blood-curdling horror, although he proves himself capable of delivering those as well.
There are a few moments of action that seem to break the internal logic of the movie’s world so that Peele can get his characters to the climax he wants. The twist revealed in the final minutes of Us also doesn’t add to Peele’s larger message, but instead acts as a creepy punctuation to the more standard horror aspects of the picture. Still, that ending made me ponder the characters’ lives outside of what I had seen on screen. Peele’s biting social commentary likewise makes an impression that lingers after the movie has ended.
The story is centered on Adelaide Wilson and her family. As a young girl in 1986, Adelaide suffered a traumatic experience that is directly related to the horrific events in Us, which take place in the present. Adelaide, her husband Gabe, and their daughter Zora and son Jason have just arrived at their beach house for summer vacation.
After strange happenings during a visit to the beach, the Wilson’s prepare for bed on their first night in the house. They notice a creepy family of four standing silently outside. Gabe confronts them, but they quickly incapacitate him and force their way into the house.
The Wilsons discover the four strangers are doppelgängers. Adelaide’s doppelgänger, Red, is the only one of the four who speaks. She tells the Wilsons that the twisted doubles of their family are “the tethered.” As Adelaide grew up, found love, and started a family, Red mirrored her existence in a tortured, shadow reality. They have come to cut ties with the Wilsons; the only way to do that is to kill them.
Peele masterfully glides through multiple subgenres of horror as a way to keep us off-kilter throughout his film. The early sequence, when the Wilson family goes to the beach, is a delightful slow build with a psychological horror feel. There is something just a bit off about every moment, making us wonder about the mental state of our hero, Adelaide. From the opening shot of the film, it’s her story; we experience every bit of dread through her.
Us then shifts into home invasion territory as the Wilsons try to keep their tethered counterparts out of the house. There is even a clever nod to the classic Night of the Living Dead as we learn through a television news broadcast that the tethered are a phenomenon larger than just the Wilsons’ own set of doppelgängers. Obviously, most of the film concentrates on the psychological suspense of having an otherworldly twin, a horror subgenre that has had a resurgence in the last few years with films like Enemy and the black comedy The Double. Finally, Peele throws an elongated chase sequence (another popular subgenre of horror movies) into the mix.
But it’s the social commentary message that Peele is most interested in exploring here. Just like with all great horror movies, the thing meant to make us jump out of our seats is a metaphor. Night of the Living Dead was an examination of bigotry and hatred in the civil rights era. Even when the filmmakers don’t intend a deeper meaning, like with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, critics and audiences can read one – sometimes more than one – message into the story. For example, Body Snatchers was regarded as both a warning against conformity and suppression in the McCarthy era as well as a metaphor for Communist infiltration of the United States.
With the tethered, and the circumstances that created them (I don’t want to divulge spoilers), Peele is implicating all of us who have comfortable lives but turn a blind eye to the permanent underclass who struggle to scrape together a living. The people who live below the poverty line – the underworld where the tethered live that Red describes to the Wilson family is an apt metaphor – are the same people who make our comfortable lives so pleasant. Those who clean our hotel rooms, take our orders at the fast-food drive-thru, or, worst of all, suffer joblessness and homelessness often struggle to feed their own families, while we ignore them completely.
Worse than that, Peele points out, we like to feel like we’re doing something when we engage in charity stunts like the famous 1986 “Hands Across America” event. That cultural touchstone plays a key part in the plot of Us, one character slyly observing that an event like it that takes place during the movie is like a weird performance art piece.
Peele makes his point obvious early in the film when Adelaide asks who the doppelgängers are, and Red’s response is simply, “We’re Americans.” But just because it’s obvious doesn’t make it any less effective.
Jordan Peele is also talented enough of a filmmaker that he can adroitly blend elements of comedy into his horror movie. Gabe’s goofy #dadjoke personality supplies much of the humor early in the film before the scares take over, but Peele’s screenplay keeps the jokes coming even after the horror begins. There’s a clever bit about an Alexa-like digital assistant named Ophelia involving the song Fuck Tha Police, and Peele brilliantly juxtaposes the Beach Boys hit Good Vibrations to a gory murder scene.
As I mentioned at the top, there are a few logic problems with Us. One character inexplicably gains the power to control his doppelgänger’s movements with his own body. And I’m not convinced that the final twist adds to Peele’s social critique, or if it’s just included to give the audience one last “A-ha” moment before the credits roll. Us is, however, a thoughtful piece of genre filmmaking that supplies ample frights and fun with its message.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- There is A LOT to chew on in Us. The movie is packed with ideas, and Peele’s visual style is as interesting as his themes are complex and thought-provoking.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I got schooled by film critics who are much more insightful than I am. I put the final twist down to a Twilight Zone “a-ha” moment, and not much else. The fine critics at the Filmspotting podcast dug much deeper than I did, and their argument is very convincing. Check out their take here.
- Michael Abels’ score for the film has a gorgeous throwback quality to sci-fi/horror of the 1950s. The strings have a quivering quality that wonderfully complements the mood.
- I was so interested in the themes Peele was exploring that I didn’t mention the acting at all, which is superb. It was so easy to forget that each cast member was playing two roles. Every actor was able to make both of their characters so distinct from one another. Lupita Nyong’o, however, stands out among an excellent ensemble. Her’s is the only doppelgänger that speaks, and she rose to the occasion to create a distinctive and creepy performance.
- Peele skewers white culture with the Wilsons’ friends, Kitty and Josh, played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. The couple has a boat named “B-Yacht’ch.”
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- The crowd was really into this one. The most striking thing was just how much the laughs hit in the middle of all the horror. They acted like a pressure valve in the high intensity atmosphere of the movie.