Movie Review: ‘Us’ is a haunting look at the forgotten in America
Director: Jordan Peele
Writers: Jordan Peele
Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Synopsis: A family’s serene beach vacation turns to chaos when their doppelgängers appear and begin to terrorize them.
When Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out came out a couple of years ago, I didn’t see it till it had left the theater. When I finally saw it, I thought it was a real fun horror movie with social messages that rang true to the time we were living in. I think I gave the movie a B letter grade. But as the months went on, I couldn’t get it out of my head, thus when I went back and I rewatched it, the letter grade bumped up. When I saw it again last year, I realized I had made a mistake in not putting it in my top 10 and would rank it really high if I went back and did that exercise again.
So when I was given the opportunity to go to South by Southwest for this website, I felt there was no better way to watch his follow-up, Us, than by watching it at the world premier with a massive audience that would be clamoring to see what Peele gives us next. And by the time the end credits rolled up on the screen, I sat in my seat speechless, wondering what it was I had just seen. It took me weeks and a rewatch of the film outside of the festival to finally settle on how I feel about Us, which I think is one of the smartest films in years and one of the most layered horror films of all time. Peele takes everything we loved about Get Out and doubles down with a message about how are country is broken and that the real people we should be worried about is the person you see in the mirror.
Us follows Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’g), who is a wife to Gabe (Winston Duke) and mother of two to Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex). When Adelaide was young, she experienced a traumatic event where she confronts what looked to be a copy of herself while being at a carnival near the beach with her parents. That moment shaped her life to what it is today and how she raises her two children. While on an annual family vacation, Gabe suggest that they all go to the beach for the day with their friends the Tyler family (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide doesn’t want to go, knowing it would be the exact same beach as the one from her nightmare encounter but she caves and goes with her family.
They arrive at the beach and spend some time there before Jason wonders off and Adelaide maniacally looks for him and, when she finds him, demands that they go back to their house in fear of something similar that happened to her happening to Jason. They get home, spend a normal cozy night together, and before they go to sleep, Jason comes into his parent’s room and tells them that there is a family standing at the top of their drive way. But it is not just a family, it is a family of doppelgangers who are in red jump suits with shape gold scissors in their hand. They are here for an awakening of the world that Adelaide and her family live in and what soon follows is some of the best storytelling of the years that will not be spoiled in this review so don’t worry.
What I will talk about are the themes of the film, and some of the messages that I felt Peele was trying to talk about within the characters and story that we saw on the screen. While Get Out is about race in American, Peele takes Us to a different level in discussing the true state of America as it is right now. These doppelgangers, or the Tethered as they are called in the film, represent so many things that are wrong with America today. When it comes to the unheard people who live in the middle part of the country, the untold stories that are never told on the news, and the rage that one gets when the people you lived with your whole life are suffering at the hands of others that don’t even think that you exist. And thus the uprising that we see in the film is one that we can relate to, with many people feeling so enraged when having discussion about changing the world that they would strangle each other just to get their points and message across. There is also a call back to Hands Across America, used in an effectively creepy way to show not just the symbolism of the border wall discussion that is going on in modern American politics but it also shows this attachment to the ideas of the past and not moving on with new ideas and policies for the modern world we live in. With this attachment to the past, the Tethered cling to the idea of getting this country back and doing whatever it means necessary to be the ones in charge.
Beyond just the themes of the movie are the performances from the cast but especially Lupita Nyong’g, who is compelling as Adelaide and completely deranged, evil and sympathetic as Adelaide’s doppelganger Red. It’s is really hard to give two performances within the same film and give them so much pathos and memorability and yet she nails every scene she is in, giving the best performance in a horror film since Linda Blair in The Exorcist, yes she is that good. It’s crazy to think that this is her first lead actress performance of her career but it is and she knocks it out of the park. The kids are stellar in the film, working great alongside Nyong’g and Duke, giving us a lot of fun moments.
But speaking of fun moments, if Lupita wasn’t in this movie, the performance we would be talking about in this movie would be from Winston Duke, who does a complete one-eighty from his performance in Black Panther last year, and gives us so many hilarious moments that really bring levity to the darker tones that are consistent throughout the film. The actors playing the Tyler family are solid, with Elisabeth Moss shining over the bunch and really giving us a smaller version of what Lupita was giving us in her performance. But while the focus of the film is never on them, they do a great job with they are given and put in some pretty solid work.
Besides the performances, the biggest thing that stood out in Us was the maturity in Jordan Peele’s direction. While the script has a lot to say, and isn’t as clean as Get Out (which is the point), it is the direction in Us that, in my opinion, is leaps and bounds ahead of his debut. The colors of the fun house mixed with the close-ups are similar to the Sunken Place scene but they feel more terrifying and beautiful than that memorable scene, reminding me of the close-ups Barry Jenkins has in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. The ending of the film has one of the best shot sequences where Adelaide and Red face off, with dynamite editing mixed with a perfect score from Michael Abels. The scene is very much an early contender for scene of the year for me and Abels score could be an early contender for best score as well considering how hypnotizing yet elegant it is.
I could write a whole book about how much I love this movie but I will leave you with this final thought. Us has shown me that Jordan Peele is slowly becoming one of my favorite directors working today. I love how he understands how to attract audiences to smart, audacious genre movies better than anyone right now. I continue to be in awe of him and keep thinking that we are seeing someone grow into the next big thing in front of our eyes by their own rules. And just like that audience that I saw this movie with for the first time at SXSW, I can’t wait till his next film comes out so I can be just like them, being all in and knowing what I’m about to get into with this audience. I want to feel like this because I’m all in on what Peele is selling right now and I’m buying stock in him as the future storyteller of this generation.
Overall Grade: A
Hear our podcast review on Episode 318: