"Once upon a time there was a girl, and she had a shadow."
It’s 1987: a child version of Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide (played by Madison Currie) watches a commercial for then-President Ronald Reagan’s racial tension appeasement stunt known as the “Hands Across America” initiative. Like the beginning of Gaspar Noé’s Climax, the TV set is flanked by rows of VHS tapes that make transparent the film’s influences: A Nightmare on Elm Street, C.H.U.D, The Goonies. Adelaide here sees her reflection upon the saturated blue skies of the broadcast, then again in more disturbing circumstances towards the end of this prologue, in the fun-house mirrors of a beachside carnival. In both cases, there is something discomfiting about the act of self-confrontation.
So begins Jordan Peele’s intrepid new horror picture, Us. Though bedazzled with nods to the great American suspense films (of Spielberg, De Palma, Kubrick), Peele’s highly anticipated second feature is of its own pedigree, building upon Get Out’s notion of double consciousness as a source of terror and trauma, and injecting a class dimension that rounds out the new film’s more sweeping critique of American society. The title’s built-in anagram referring the United States is but the most obvious marker of Peele’s ambitions.
The film then shifts to present-day Adelaide at the beginning of her family’s summer vacation at a lakeside cottage near Santa Cruz—the same area visited by her childhood self. Her genial but boyish husband, Gabe (Winston Dukes), is eager to head to the beach and meet up with their wealthier white friends, the Myers (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), but Adelaide is apprehensive to return to the exact location of her past traumatic encounter in the house of mirrors. Naturally, they resolve to make the day trip anyway, though a series of morbid sightings tease the events to come—a homeless man Adelaide first saw thirty years ago dead in an ambulance, and her youngest son, Jason (Evan Alex), meeting a trench coat-wearing man with a bloody stump for a hand. Later that night, a family of four stands in their driveway, their outlines eerily illuminated by streetlights; they’re unfazed by threats of 9-1-1 and baseball bat beatings. Not soon after, the figures disperse and break into the house. Each is a red jumpsuit-clad doppelgänger, and they’re led by none other than Adelaide’s evil dead ringer. “What are you people?” stutters Adelaide once the two families meet face-to-face: “We’re Americans,” creakily replies her double, her lips curling to a wicked grin.
While thoroughly conventional in its narrative decision-making—the first third a series of trick scares, foreshadowing, and breezy character development that leads up to the film’s sudden escalation—Us clicks into place as it transitions from a home invasion thriller to a sprawling survival story. Generously brutal and relentlessly paced, it also weaves in moments of comic relief without necessarily taking audiences out of the desired tension. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who shot David Robert Mitchell and M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent projects, visually straddles the line between realism and the supernatural with a warm palette that shifts to an industrial cool as the film assumes its conclusive oneiric state. As in his work in It Follows, Gioulakis renders banal spaces into those with palpable menace.
The conceit of having each actor perform both the “good” and “evil” versions of their characters is practically dramatic fodder. Indeed, the cast prevails in milking this challenge to impressive results, not least because of choreography that borders on the lyrical in its maneuvering of fight and chase sequences, as well as the physical distinctions made between the bodily swagger of the “normal” characters and the inhuman rigidity of the doppelgängers.
Unlike Get Out, which boasts a certain acuity in its parable of internalized pain and racial trauma, Us bears the stretch marks of a bloated American nightmare that extends beyond a focused, traceable phenomenon. Whether this is indebted to the film’s purposeful delirium, or the diluted loose ends of thematic overreach is uncertain on a single viewing. What ultimately floats to the top as the film’s central challenge is the adage that we are are own worst enemies. Meanwhile the film gestures towards the country’s finger-pointing prejudices along racial and class lines by posing these warring parties as two embodied dualities of the same person. Though at its best—and most terrifying—the film is simply the story of “a girl and her shadow,” engulfed in the implacable dread of Nyong’o’s Adelaide, violently split open by the materialization of her buried “other.”
I recall when the trailer for Us dropped on Christmas last year. Almost immediately, a familiar song—hip hop duo Luniz’s 1995 West Coast stoner anthem “I Got Five On It”—emerged in a new light. In the aftermath of the film, this song remains an eerie, lingering backdrop that references simultaneously a precise historical nostalgia—of the nineties Oakland rap scene, easy living, twiddling a joint between your fingers—and the nation’s xenophobic reality that the film suggests we so casually reinforce. It’s not unlike the jarring effect of Kubrick’s use of “Midnight, The Stars and You” in The Shining, or “In Dreams”in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which both play on the cheap, crooning romance of balladeer Americana. There’s a difference between merely juxtaposing a cheery tune with horrific imagery and locating a particular arrangement that will define a signature style. While Peele’s latest still betrays the inclinations of an “early work,” there is something undeniably triumphant about the film’s individuality, its ability to glean from a mostly underused strain of American culture to ingenious results.