Jordan Peele’s sophomore film Us tells the unnerving fantastical tale of a family hunted by doppelgängers of themselves. Themes of longing and belonging are surreptitiously woven into a narrative that critiques the values of Modern America and the effect past American ideals have had in producing a landscape that feels both isolating and carnivorously self-involved.
Peele peels away each layer of story slowly, with an attentive aptitude that balances plot and character development against mystery in such a way that charms the audience from the very first scene until the last. Us opens with a quote about the miles of abandoned tunnels that lie forgotten beneath the surface of the US soil. The phrase “many have no known purpose at all” lingers on a black screen, setting up the premise. This quote invites the audience to question the concept of purpose and more broadly, targets a society that lives with an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that tends to view things as expendable once they lose their usefulness.
Us is full of motifs of mirrors, which tie into themes of identity. The audience is encouraged to wonder about who the characters are, and the meaning of identity itself. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the title of the film is a homograph for US. Us uses metaphor to critique and shatter the idea of the all-American dream.
Us opens by establishing the apocalyptic tone that remains throughout the film almost immediately. A storm brews as a young girl wanders around a fairground with her parents. She looks a little lonely and as if she would rather be somewhere else. A man stands nearby holding a sign that reads, “Jeremiah 11:11”, a bible passage in which God promises there will be a coming destruction where he will refuse to help, even when called upon.
The young girl leaves her parents and wanders down to the beach on her own, entering a rundown fair attraction with a neon sign that reads, “find yourself” above the door. Once inside, the girl discovers a haunted-house type attraction, where she ultimately ends up in a room of mirrors. But wait! As if that wasn’t already creepy enough, we then realise that one of her reflections isn’t moving when she does.
Jumping forward 20 years, the film is then set in a predominately white suburban neighbourhood. The Wilson family wants for what every other all-American family should want for. Adelaide Wilson (Nupita Nyong’o) – the grown-up girl from the opening scene – lives with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her two kids. Collectively, they form an endearingly average all-American family who are sweetly encouraging and loving to one another.
The Wilson’s are established early on as being a reasonably well-off family. They have a summer home with a long driveway, left to them by family. They own a boat, albeit not an entirely reliable one. And they are friends with another well-off family, the Tylers. However, the Tylers don’t seem to entirely respect the Wilson’s as their equals, a fact that the Wilson’s seem aware of.
The Wilson’s are a family caught between the lingering effects of institutionalised racism and a predominantly white upper-class society that still hasn’t accepted them fully as one of their own. They want to prove themselves and feel as though, to do this, they need to be seen as having ‘succeeded’ in the terms of the people who surround them. However, this compulsion to prove success is equally shared by the rich, white Tyler family, suggesting that equating self-worth in terms of others’ ideas of success instills a sense of unfulfilled longing. You will always feel the need to prove and preserve your status by obsessively wanting more.
Us is full of references to materialism and wealth. In one scene Adelaide sits in her summer house on the bay eating a very ripe strawberry, a vision of tranquility and luxury. She doesn’t want to go to the main beach, she argues, because it’s “too crowded” and they have a quiet little bay right beside them anyway.
In another scene, Gabe rants about the Tyler’s new car, which he believes had been bought to antagonise him. On the beach, the Tyler wife, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) reveals to Adelaide that she recently had plastic surgery. This conversation happens immediately after her husband treats her with a degradingly uninterested attitude, alluding the audience to Kitty’s loneliness in her marriage and suggesting she believes the best way to preserve her sense of self-worth and status is by buying treatments to ‘fix’ herself to remain relevant.
Later, this conversation reveals to the audience that one of Adelaide’s pastimes was ballet dancing, and she was good at it. Kitty seems jealous of Adelaide, possibly because she feels that aside from the role she plays within the ‘American dream’, she lacks a personal identity of her own. In general, the Tyler family’s main identity is they are a caricature of the suburban upper-class white family, with little in the way of individual quirks beyond this. Peele seems to warn the viewer that by forcing yourself to fit into the American dream, you will begin to lose your own individuality.
When the doppelgänger Wilson family arrive, when questioned by the scared Wilson’s about what they are doing there, the doppelgängers respond, “We’re Americans.” In a telling show of Gabe’s idea of what constitutes worth, Gabe frantically begins to list off all the material items that the doppelgängers can take. None of these offers interest the doppelgängers who clearly hadn’t come for the Wilson’s material wealth.
As the horror story evolves, the audience begins questioning which group has more right to be angry and which group has more morality. The question of morality is further commented upon by drawing parallels to earlier scenes. One example references a TV broadcast that discussed an event known as Hands Across America in which a group of good Samaritans planned to link hands spanning right across America in a bid to fight world hunger. The irony of the ineffectiveness of this act isn’t lost on Peele, who later critiques Hands Across America (and arguably real-life examples of this type of philanthropical event) with the quote; “Looks like some kind of fucked up performance art.”
The tension in Us is built in part by a masterful soundscape that blends contemporary music alongside the more classical horror-film approach; a steady beat accompanied with sharp string sounds that build as moments grow tenser. The viewer is kept on edge with wandering camera shots, slow zooms, motifs of reflections and close-ups that linger a little too long on terrified faces during the scarier scenes.
Framing shots allude to the mirror motif throughout the film, encouraging paranoia in the audience by giving a sense the characters are in a trap and unwittingly being watched. Peele tactfully uses jump-cuts to tell the story of Us in a non-linear format, allowing the audience to draw comparisons between shots.
Every character is wonderfully acted, with stand-out performances coming from Lupita Nyong’o, Elisabeth Moss and newcomer Evan Alex who plays Adelaide’s son. These actors superbly capture the complexity and mystery of their characters’ in both their original version and arguably even more interestingly, in the doppelgänger version of themselves.
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Although Us is primarily a horror/drama film, there are more than a few moments of ironic humour that bring a lightness to the narrative. However, this is immediately balanced out by an underlying feeling of tragedy that remains well into the film’s final moments. It is for this reason that it is hard to define the film as just one thing as it transcends genres and even leaves many of the main themes open to interpretation.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily consider Us an extremely scary film at face value, the questions that it leaves the audience to ponder are. For example, how do we even know what makes us, us? And, are we our own biggest enemies? If we are, should we actually want everything to stay as it was, unchanged? In this respect, the film represents a fantastic example of horror because the audience is left haunted by the existential questions that it provokes.
Us is an impressive follow-up to Peele’s debut, Get Out, with even more nuance, a clearer sense of direction and tidier pacing. It proves his rapidly evolving talent as a filmmaker who has a lot of love for the stories that he tells. I keenly look forward to what he delivers next.