Jordan Peele’s Us is officially here after months of build, promotion, and a few years of anticipation. When his debut, the inimitable Get Out, turned into a hit and an award winner, people were eager to see what he’d do next. Since he is resurrecting The Twilight Zone, it’s only natural to see something in that vane (inspired as it is by the episode “Mirror, Mirror”).
Peele takes the idea, adds slasher elements, and brings in another strong cast led by Lupita Nyong’o as a woman on vacation with her family and haunted by trauma from her past. Home at night, they are confronted by strange doubles — doppelgangers — who want to kill and torment them.
So that’s the gist of it, right? A family fights themselves, sort of, in order to survive the night? Well, not entirely. Us goes in a few directions once the essential premise is established and the trailer did a good job of concealing that wrinkle. Going in, you genuinely don’t know what to expect.
One surprise, though fairly obvious, is the injection of comedy, which Peele started his career in, but the real development is the source of much of that comic relief.
Winston Duke plays the opposite of Mbaku as Nyong’o’s husband, Gabe. He is a big, tough-looking dude but a complete goof at heart; about as threatening as Pee-wee Herman. A broken-down boat is his biggest concern and he takes a beating from his doppelganger. Attempts he makes to intimidate them don’t work although, not to be totally feckless, he gets his licks in, in the end.
We saw flashes of this prowess from him in Black Panther but his range was never fully explored. Mbaku was usually an earnest and authoritative warrior. Humor was something he used against outsiders from his throne, like Everett Ross, and it was always accompanied by intimidation.
Duke pulled double duty as his duplicate, Abe, and manages to elicit chuckles then too, carrying on indistinct conversations with grunts. Lightening the mood, he gives the audience someone to identify with. He as well acts as an avatar for the director and his brand of levity.
The Unlikely Auteur
Since the 70s, a few have been hailed as the equal to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. For some it was Dario Argento; then David Cronenberg earned similar recognition after The Fly and his psycho-thriller Dead Ringers. Jordan Peele is very much that for this generation — writing, directing, and producing, which are must-have skills for any budding auteur.
Crafting his own style, his themes are a far cry from his comedic background. If any old onlooker plotted out his career trajectory, they’d have him writing for Saturday Night Live. Not content with being consigned to that, or with what was usually at the box office, he blazed his own trail and added a unique voice to American cinema.
Aesthetic Form & Message
Like Get Out, there is a social commentary underlying Us just beneath the surface — literally in the second half. It boils down to themes of alienation and being heard not quite as palpable as its predecessor. Yet, the text effectually uses sci-fi and the supernatural to carry its point, as Rod Serling did.
Cinematography and lighting aid in that, making up a good deal of the effectiveness. Tight framings and close-ups, especially of a distraught and desperate Nyong’o, impart a feeling of claustrophobia and make you feel uncomfortable at tense moments. During the first home invasion, most of all, there is a sense of unshakable perilous entrapment. Fights are in close-ups, sometimes extreme ones, and in enclosed spaces often — cars, closets, bedrooms, the lower deck of a boat.
Contrasts of light and dark thanks to flares, flames, and street lights augment the discomfort of cramped spaces and streets murky under the cover of darkness. One child (Zora, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph) outruns her other in the wilderness while her brother (Jason, Evan Alex) is alone in a closet with his and a box of matches.
So what is the source of the terror? Doppelgangers are a paranormal phenomenon reported throughout the ages and not lacking malevolent intentions. Here they like to be called the Tethered, beings who mimic the movements of their twins like a shadow and want to cut themselves loose (hence the scissors).
Then there is that cryptic point I brought up earlier concerning alienation and identity. When asked, Nyong’o’s evil twin says they “are Americans.” Different audiences will take away from that what they will. The end is to assign the Tethereds agency and tie them to polemics in a way that’s meaningful to each viewer.
Peele has names for each of them: Gabe’s is Abe and Nyong’o’s is Red, for instance. Backstories are evident too, but he doesn’t explain where they came from originally and how long they’ve been around. There are hints of a secret science experiment long abandoned, though you don’t really know.
Things, ambiguous as presented, are open for a sequel and many are going to want one. Blumhouse will, for sure.
Jordan Peele’s Us is thought-provoking and tense. You definitely won’t know what you’re getting; there are more twists than just the evil twins out to get people. The twist that comes after the action switches locations takes it to routine Purge territory, costing the film some steam, but setting up for an ultimate twist that is a shock — until you think about it.
- Lupita Nyong'o carries this film. There is a laundry list of familiar faces who have played a twisted version of themselves, including Jeremy Irons (remember that other Cronenberg movie I mentioned), but one has to be uber talented and special to pull it off.
- Her familial supporting cast: when an entire family can do the same, kids too (that are beyond their years as performers building characters), you pull off something really amazing.
- Photography and lighting.
- The movie juggles a lot of ideas and tries to extract more twists than it has to.
- Its setup would never work in reality, not in a well-armed Middle America. Tethereds aren't bulletproof.