‘Us’ is a Puzzle Box That Interrogates the American Illusion

The power of great genre films, to me, is that they are able to tackle larger abstractions and broad truths about humanity under layers of subtext, whilst still letting us go through an out of this world, moviegoing experience. When I think of the idea of the doppelganger, a traditional horror/sci-fi staple, the being that looks exactly like ourselves invading our own bubbles, I think of the stories that often seek to shed light on our own insecurities. Invasion of the Body SnatchersPossession, and more recently, Annihilation and Enemy, all films that use this specific symbol are based on a destructive, human feeling; a depressive itch you can’t scratch, the demon on your shoulder telling you that you’re not quite the person you project yourself to be. My relationship with social media in the last few months has made me realize that this imposter syndrome I feel is a mode of my own living, but when I’m aware of it, there lies an insidious feeling in my gut, and my sense of self melts away. All of these concepts were stirred up in my brain once again, but this time, instead of just the focus on the self, there’s a broader statement here about our society as a whole. This is America. This is Us.

us-family

Jordan Peele’s Us is the sophomore follow-up to his Academy-Award winning social horror thriller, Get Out, which took the film landscape by storm. While following up a film like Get Out is an immense amount of pressure, Peele handles it with so much grace. Here he is, channeling that history he made with his debut and recentering the energy into something entirely new. Just add in Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, and Elisabeth Moss, and you have a mid-level budget effort that feels so much like an event film of its own. While previously he worked with Blumhouse, which houses a specific model for their films, Peele now has his screenwriting Oscar, a production company of his own, Monkeypaw Productions, and an unhinged amount of ambition to craft yet another social horror film to instigate our worst nightmares and how they blend with our own reality.

Scarred from a traumatic incident she faced as a child at a funhouse by the beach, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) finally returns to Santa Cruz with her husband, son, and daughter, and some strange things start to happen. A chain of weird coincidences starts to follow her and her family during their vacation, culminating to a chilling middle-of-the-night visit to their beach house by strange visitors. But these visitors are not your average psychos and creeps; these visitors are mirror images of Adelaide’s family, and they came with something to prove. To go into any more detail would do a disservice to your viewing experience, but it’s important I tell you what you’re in for here. Because unlike Get Out, which is a layered and creatively inspired film despite being a straightforward, singular idea, Peele goes straight into a different storytelling mode in Us than most are typically used to in the mainstream consciousness. It’s a horror film that prioritizes themes, coding, and large concepts first, and the plot becomes secondary. Some of it is so satisfyingly clever and masterful, some moments can read as heavy-handed and hokey, but to go this route at all is spectacularly brave. It will frustrate lots of viewers but will delightfully challenge all those wanting to participate in this deceptively simple thematic puzzle box.

I cannot stress enough just how fresh watching Us feels. Peele is open and honest about his inspirations for the film starting with the opening shot of a TV with some VHS tapes, and there are a lot of homages to Romero and other classic horror films here, but mostly Peele does a lot to forge its own identity within Us, which is delightfully poetic, for a doppelganger movie. But the heavy symbolism, the dense amount of details to pick apart, all beautifully orchestrated by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is a sight to behold. There’s a Hitchcockian sensibility to moment-to-moment scares, a high attention to detail for elements that will be referenced time and time again, sometimes becoming key later on, sometimes without you even knowing it. This is excellent, textbook-great filmmaking, and is needed to keep us invested as our sense of logic quickly fades away into our trip into Peele’s mind. 

It goes without saying Lupita Nyong’o is excellent and at the top of her game here, because she always is, and if she goes unrecognized for this excellent dual performance then surely there is not a lot of hope in the world. The supporting cast is just as electric, though. Winston Duke is a loveable dad and provides us the much-needed comedic breathers when all this apocalyptic chaos is unfolding in front of our eyes. The kids, however? They’re on another level. Shahadi Wright Joesph and Evan Alex balance the playful innocence of the children and then switch to evil and animalistic as if it were just second-nature. There’s a scene in the last act of this movie with Nyong’o that I will likely remember for the rest of the year, as it balances this immense painful dread with an astounding amount of cinematic flair. A battle between violence and beauty, a battle between reality and fantasy, a display of truth versus an outrageous illusion. Our American dream, the idea that when we arrive in this magical place, we can become more than what we are, shattered by the reality that there’s always someone out there, below us, that we’re hurting. The indisputable fact that America was founded in oppression and genocide, next to the daily worship of a flag that commemorates that very own history. The realization that we preach about how anyone can be a “have” in our society, but the seething underbelly of this ideology is that most of us are going to be “have-nots”.

While Us can be a personal mediation of trauma as a mirror, your own pleasures invoked in the pain of someone else, what’s so special about Peele’s new film is how it can take this established piece of horror/sci-fi iconography and recontextualize it to make a broader statement about our society. Most doppelganger stories are about the manifestation of our own self-destructiveness, but Us takes that concept of pain, examines how we channel it towards each other and redirects it back to ourselves. Us dares to question American values and seek to explore how it will all collapse at our own feet. While the normal political and social artistic mode seeks to point fingers at others, Us makes us examine ourselves and the very way we live our lives. Are you sure you’re really the hero of your own story? Or does it truly even matter? Whoever lives ignorant of others pain, whoever chooses to live in illusions, is a true American after all.

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