Actor-turned-director Jordan Peele scored a hit with 2017’s Get Out. Now he’s back with Us, a not dissimilar metaphor that probes the depths of our social identities. But more than most films I’ve seen recently, it’s difficult to discuss without being spoilery.
From the trailer, it’s no secret that Adelaide and Gabe Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, respectively) are on vacation with their two kids when they’re confronted by apparently exact doubles of themselves, bent on a lethal mission. It’s both impossible to describe any more than that, and at the same time unnecessary. That’s about as intricate as the story gets, yet the movie surrounding that simplistic plot contains vast layers of complexity.
The notion of the doppelganger — literally “double traveler,” but often interpreted as “evil twin” — goes back to Zoroastrianism with the twin gods Ahura Mazda and Ahriman reflecting good and evil. In more recent times, the doppelganger is seen as a malicious entity that stalks its real-life counterpart, and is often interpreted as the Jekyll and Hyde-like manifestation of inner evil. But what, in Peele’s parable, are these malignant doubles? The most I will tell you is that there is an explanation of sorts, and it’s actually more fantastic than anything I could have imagined. In fact, it’s so bizarre and opens up so many other questions that it hurts to think about it.
But that’s what Peele wants you to do — think, and hurt while doing it. There are some chilling sequences, to be sure, aided and abetted by the musical score by Michael Abels, who also scored Get Out. Us comfortably fits into the new horror movement sparked by films like Get Out and It Follows, and, like them, its purpose is not the requisite jump scare every eight minutes. In this case, it’s the more insidious, lingering horror of, “What if my decisions are not my own?”
Peele certainly has a terrifying narrative to carry his existential questions, and you’ll have to look and listen closely to pick up his buried clues and Easter eggs, many of which harken back to American pop culture from the ’80s — where the first scene of the film occurs — to the modern day. There are frequent references to Jeremiah 11:11 (“Thus saith the Lord. ‘Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them’”), but in the end, it’s not esoteric riddles that carry a film; it’s the ability of the audience to identify with the characters, and the actors’ ability to bring those characters to life.
Nyong’o and Duke previously appeared together in last year’s Black Panther, and Duke’s enormous likability in that film easily translates to his role as the dad in Us, although his character here understandably lacks the larger-than-life qualities of his character in the previous film. The dominant personality through whose eyes we see the film is Adelaide, and Nyong’o flawlessly carries the film, both as Adelaide and as her evil twin. She gets downright creepy, yet still can’t match Shahadi Wright Joseph, as Adelaide’s daughter Zora, who is easily my favorite character. Joseph, as Zora’s doppelganger, flashes a nightmarish grin as her prelude to mayhem, and she’s easily the scariest thing in the movie.
Us is not the horror movie its trailers seem edited to imply, but I’m good with that. It’s more about Peele’s view of modern life — in some ways, it’s as satirical as last year’s Sorry to Bother You — than it is about racking up scares or a body count. It’s not an easy watch, but I’d like to see it again because I’m frankly intrigued, which I think is a better state to be in than the vicarious and quickly forgotten high from a gratuitous thrill ride.