In 2017, Jordan Peele set the film world ablaze with his social thriller, Get Out. With a premise that insidiously plucked on the familiar notes of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner: the film impressed with its measured direction and blistering commentary, that presented African American racism with a frightening and ironic new dimension.
By comparison, Peele’s second feature, Us, is a sly, full-blooded horror movie that engages as a tight wire act between the high and low sensibilities of the genre. It demonstrates that Peele has perfected the alchemy of the a and b-grade horror picture, and is able to seamlessly harmonise them with firm confidence.
While on holiday with her parents at a Santa Cruz amusement park, a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) drifts into a funhouse. Within the hall of mirrors, she encounters an exact identical version of herself. Many years later, an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the area with husband- Gabe (Winston Duke), elder daughter- Zora (Shahadi Wright Joesph) and youngest son- Jason (Evan Alex). As a series of seemingly innocuous coincidences start to mount up, Adelaide must come to terms with her past trauma, when an identical family appear on the front entrance of her summer home.
The experience of watching Us is akin to witnessing a Russian nesting doll set decrease before your very eyes. The first quarter engages as a tense Hitchcockian thriller, in which tiny surreal details are drip fed in a calculated manner to unnerve the audience. The film then transforms into a home invasion thriller that has echoes of The Hills Have Eyes in its sheer primordial tension of seeing the family surviving against their respective doppelgängers. From there, the picture morphs into a dizzyingly nasty black comedy, that expands its tone and concept into something wholly surprising and wild.
Peele matches the ambitious genre and narrative shifts with some intriguing and memorable imagery. This mostly comes in the form of some haunting and often quite vivid close-ups that engulf the frame. They subvert the usual genre convention of hiding the monsters and providing cursory glimpses of them for maximum shock factor. Instead, Peele employs the close-ups to juxtapose the doppelgängers with their respective family pairings to illustrate how little separates them.
But Peele’s most impressive direction comes in the final act. One prolonged chase sequence cross-cuts Adelaide’s memories of being a dancer with her desperate attempts to kill her doppelgänger (Red), whose elegant movements evoke her counterpart’s memories in frighteningly intense ways. The sequence is elevated by Micheal Ables’ stirring score. It manages to harmonise two contrasting genres of horror music. In his elegant and sudden use of strings, Ables evokes the sharpness of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme with the contemporary droning grunge music that defined much of Tyler Bate’s Halloween scores.
While there is a distinct pleasure in seeing Peele effortlessly juggle disparate tones and ascetic sensibilities, the real power of Us comes from its subtext about its central antagonists (The Tethered).
Peele presents an American fable in which The Tethered is a vivid representation of Jung’s shadow archetype. Their disenchantment is fueled by a fervent religiosity that has been lost in contemporary American culture. There is a persistent reference to a Biblical verse (Jeremiah 11:11) by a silent harbinger. It speaks of an evil that is going to be unleashed and will be inescapable. When people try to cry out for God for this plague, he will not listen, suggesting a perception of divine righteousness and protection on the part of The Tethered.
Conceptually, The Tethered range in influence from the cannibal savages in The Hills Have Eyes to the dreary-eyed Body Snatchers that have permeated the history of genre movies. But Peele fundamentally makes them a fairy tale creation. When a young Adelaide gets lost in the hall of mirrors, she is surrounded by a pop art set of an ancient looking forest. In addressing her metropolitan double, Red frames her tragic story as a fairy tale, complete with the proverbial opening line- “Once Upon a Time.”
Lupita Nyong’o particularly impresses in a dual role. As Adelaide, Nyong’o conveys a palpable sense of emotional repression, with her various pauses and distant line readings. These early moments in the film make her later emotional outbursts all the more powerful and striking. Whereas the Keyan-Mexican actress injects Red with a precise and spindly physicality that echos some of Robert Englund’s great work as Freddy Kruger.
With images that will remain etched in your mind and a premise that keeps unravelling into something rich and interesting: Us is a serious call to arms film for cementing Jordan Peele’s talent as a horror auteur of the highest degree.