‘Us’ review: Terrifying dissection of duality

Jordan Peele’s ‘Us is one of those rare gems that feels like an instant classic right after seeing it.

The theme of duality permeates all over Jordan Peele’s sophomore film Us that even its title serves a double purpose – a noun and an abbreviation for United States (you’ll get it once you’ve seen the film). It’s a horror thriller that pits us against our worst, deprived selves a.k.a. the “id” that we try to suppress. What if that “inner beast” finds it way to grow among the shadows, learns to mimic your behavior and finally starts manifesting us your doppelganger? It might be an abstract concept but writer/director Peele materializes this fear into a feral reality. Indeed, we are our own worst enemies.

It’s only fitting that the film itself can be enjoyed two ways. For the first viewing, you can watch it on a surface level: a home invasion scarefest, with an unforeseen twist that should knock the wind out of your lungs. After that, watching it again can still be a different experience. By the way its screenplay is constructed, the layers of Us don’t reveal themselves until a repeat viewing. By then, the details that may seem trivial to you now starts to lock in place and even the throwaway lines are now charged with a whole new meaning. Take this scene in the trailer as an example. There’s a beautiful overhead shot of the Wilson family walking along the beach, their bodies casting long shadows. There’s no way to know that this shot carries meaning for the rest of the film.

The Tethered. (L-R): Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex and
Lupita Nyong’o play evil versions of themselves.

Actually, going in for more than two viewings might not be a crazy idea at all (provided you have the financial means to do so) for Us is so ripe with symbolism and allegory that even after discussing with friends, I’m pretty sure there are still things that went above your head. Its commentaries might not be as razor-sharp as Peele’s Get Out, but its broad application encompasses undercurrents on social jealousy and underclass oppression – more of that later.

So basically, Us revolves around the Wilson family who’s out on a weekend getaway in Santa Cruz, California. There’s mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) who’s been harboring a dark past, father Gabe (Winston Duke) who’s channeling his inner Homer Simpson to bring out some comic relief, daughter Zora (Shadadi Wright Joseph) who prefers the company of her smartphone and the youngest Jason (Evan Alex) who has a liking for wearing masks as if it’s Halloween everyday.

“There’s a family in our driveway.” – Jason

That fateful day, Adelaide has been constantly bothered by a series of omens and alas, these come into fruition when a family of four – that looks exactly like them – starts terrorizing their cottage. Garbed in matching red jumpsuits and brandishing a pair of golden scissors as their choice of weapon – a nod to the working class and the theme of duality, respectively – the film refers to them as “The Tethered.” At the moment, they’re origin and motives remain to be a mystery but one thing’s for sure, they are hostile and they are out for blood. Also, for some reason, only Adelaide’s counterpart, Red, has the ability to speak.

It’s best to cut off from there to avoid spilling the beans but let’s just say that what follows is Peele showing excellent command in his grotesque yet gorgeous filmmaking elements. What I like most about his style is that he doesn’t purely rely on gratuitous violence and lame jumpscares. Aided by Mike Gioulakis’ masterful cinematography and Michael Abel’s atmospheric musical scoring, what ultimately scares you are the social ills attached to the film.

Playing with fire. Evan Alex as Jason and his Tethered counterpart in ‘Us.’

Deprivation and envy are the prime driving forces here. The film is a satirical take on the American caste system – “the haves” and “the have nots.” For every privileged person, there’s someone out there who’s being deprived of a need. It nudges us to look at the plight of the people beneath our class. To consider how our actions ripple on others’ lives in ways more impactful than we perceive. By the time the film gets to its exposition dump, it evokes more questions in your head – some gets answered, others don’t. What starts off as a domestic horror proves to be more ambitious and larger in scope. Its resulting conspiracy aspect won’t stand strong against scrutiny, but this film simply manages to tether to your psyche as soon as the credits roll.

And let us not forget Lupita Nyong’o who takes this great film into a whole new level. Her double-edged performance is jaw-dropping. As Adelaide, her subtle uneasiness carries the film’s weight and as Red, her unbelievable voice sounds like its coming out from a crushed esophagus. There’s a reason why this lady has an Oscar. Us is the perfect vehicle for her acting prowess. It helps as well that the rest of the supporting cast are excellent all throughout in portraying their real and shadow versions. A special mention goes to Elisabeth Moss for making the most of her role.

Lupita Nyong’o plays a resilient mother and wife in ‘Us.’

Us provides more than enough thrills and significance to be included in film discussions years from now. I daresay that this is an instant classic. In a cinematic era full of sequels and reboots, Peele crafts an exquisite gem that looks like nothing else. That being said, the visionary filmmaker is very much welcome to explore more “sunken places” in the horror genre. Or more accurately, the horror genre needs Jordan Peele.

4.5 out of 5 stars
Directed and written by Jordan Peele, ‘Us‘ stars Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Cali and Noelle Sheldon. Run time: 116 minutes.

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