The opening of Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror film Us, opens with a young Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) wandering away from her bickering parents on a coastal boardwalk into a house of mirrors, only to find her reflection come to life. As an adult with a husband and two kids, Adelaide returns to the site of her past trauma to find the same demons fully grown and very bloodthirsty.
Peele portrays a family on holiday perfectly. Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), the father, is full of Dad jokes. The children, Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason Wilson (Evan Alex) are fun to watch bickering with each other and Gabe. Their family dynamic brings a light element to a film that plays with some very dark concepts. There’s a scene where Adelaide and Gabe are arguing with Zora about who gets to drive the family car by debating who has the highest kill count that had me cracking up in the cinema. This might be a horror, but there’s still touches of Peele’s talent for comedy. Us has been casted extremely well and Peele knows what to do with the talent at his disposal, especially the lead actress. Nyong’o is a powerhouse performer and the duality and depth she brings to both nervous, traumatised Adelaide and her clever, bloodthirsty double is masterful – at times I forgot the two vastly different characters are played by the same actor. With any luck this will be the first of many films with Nyongo in the forefront.
The soundtrack deserves special mention. The film offers a curated list of absolute bangers by primarily black artists, including a menacing remix of Luniz’s ‘I Got Five On It’ which is a stroke of genius. It’s very refreshing to have a horror soundtrack that isn’t colonised by heavy eighties rock ballads or creepy children’s nursery rhymes.
Us preys on the familiar fear that our reflections have an interior life in the mirror and they hate us. Except the doubles, or Tethered as Adelaide’s double calls them, are not really reflections. They’re more like shadows, relegated to abandoned underground tunnels, attached to their other half who lives a normal life, they’re seemingly forced to enact an uncomfortable and joyless facsimile of their counterpart’s day to day actions. There’s a scene where we see Adelaide’s wandering off at the boardwalk from the perspective of her double and the Tethered performing the act of participating at a carnival without being at an actual carnival knocks you off kilter, makes your shiver.
Peele claims this film is not explicitly about racism like its older sibling, Academy Award winning Get Out was, but it’s hard to look past the way this film pushes back against racist and sexist conventions of the genre. Us doesn’t have the taste for dead black bodies or sexual violence the way other films in the genre do, rather it’s a much more high concept, intellectual horror. Peele has crafted a film full of clues that you could spend hours pulling apart quite happily, although it’s not always to the film’s advantage. @kyalbr on Twitter has an interesting thread about the way this film comments on the duality of black identity that I recommend you read after you see it. There is also definitely a statement about privilege – the Tethered are as human as their shadows but are abandoned, unloved and forced to live like animals. There’s nothing to stop them living full, normal human lives except for the circumstances of their birth. That said, I did find the world-building surrounding the Tethered to be a tiny bit under done, which made the underlying political allegory muddled. The doubles are tied to the other person wearing their face and are bound by the choices their doppelganger in the above makes, but they have their own names and personalities. They are also able to move independently of their counterpart, which for me raised a lot of questions about the mechanics of their connection and the need to free themselves of it. Us also never really gives an adequate explanation for the Tethered existence – Adelaide’s double offers her theory but it’s thin and perfunctory at best. As a result, the desire and motivations for the Tethered also seemed lacklustre and murky. It felt as though both of Lupita’s characters could have held the answer to this problem but neither of them wanted to give it up, so I left feeling slightly underwhelmed by the threat of the Tethered and by the big reveal at the end.
Overall, I would thoroughly recommend this film, even for those like me who are not great with scary movies. It’s funny, smart and chilling. Peele is a must-see director for me and this didn’t disappoint. I recommend taking a friend to see this with you as Peele leaves you with so much to think and talk about.
Words by Riana Kinlough