While I've attempted to reveal too much about this film's twists, if you haven't seen the film yet and want to go in as cold as possible, go see it and come back later.
It's impressive that just two movies in director Jordan Peele's name has already become a brand, representing horror movies which are smart and socially conscious, familiar yet different Peele's name was already a brand based on his sketch comedy days with Key & Peele; but even so, transitioning to feature film-making with 2017's critically acclaimed Get Out, which won Peele the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, was quite a feat. Peele is in the position where he can pretty much do whatever he wants. But it is a mixed blessing to have that type of success early on. It's nice to have creative control in Hollywood- a place that's not always supportive of a director's vision- and not having to compromise your vision. However, you're put under a lot of pressure to live up to your early success. Film critics build you up but are equally ready to tear you down. Then there's the pressure to compromise for film critics instead of studio execs. Peele is already receiving comparisons to M. Night Shyamalan, and while Peele's new film Us has received extremely positive reviews, it's a film that's on shakier ground than his first- largely because it's a more ambitious and yes, Shyamalanesque venture, with some pretty big twists. It's a film whose denouement forces us to re-contextualise everything we've just seen, and is genuinely disturbing in its implications.
Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) are on a family vacation to where Adelaide once grew up. She once had a traumatic experience seeing her doppelganger in a mirror house, which resulted in her not being able to speak for a time. Adelaide tells Gabe she still feels she's coming for her and soon enough, all the family's doppelgangers show up. The set-up is basic but what is revealed by the end of the film suggests a much larger mythology to the story. Like Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, Shyamalan's Signs and George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, we see a large scale event through the eyes of a small group of characters. This makes the terror more realistic due to its intimacy and limited knowledge concerning the events occurring around the country.
Peele doesn't explain everything about the story, which can be viewed as a significant flaw but I think Peele's lack of explanation adds to the film's nightmarish and mysterious ambience; he's a director more invested in creating atmosphere and staging horror sequences.With this film I sensed Peele wanted to strengthen and further his visual storytelling abilities. He's a skilled filmmaker, with a great eye for composition and framing. Mike Gioulakis (the cinematographer for It Follows and this year's Glass), clearly understands the horror genre. I love how he use shadow to make the doppelgangers appear as if they're part of another world. The film's editor is Nicholas Monsour, who worked on Key & Peele. He's just starting out in feature films and he has strong grasp on how to slowly pace a film while still having a certain dramatic momentum.
Before the family of doppelgangers show up, Peele visually foreshadows them- the shadows of the family on the beach, the multiple rabbits during the opening credits. It's cheeky while still being spooky. Peele is adept at incorporating humour in to his films without undermining the uneasiness or weight of the story. I particularly liked the Home Alone reference, which reminds me that I'm getting older and younger kids may not even know what the hell Home Alone is.
I'd be interested in seeing Peele a silent film due to how effectively he uses close-ups on actors' face, letting those faces tell the story. Peele also makes the doppelgangers being unable to speak, presenting them as primal, inhuman but still frighteningly human.
Us asks what peoples' reaction would be to twisted mirror version of themselves. But more importantly, it asks what the doppelgangers's reaction would be, especially if they had it worst off than their double. And who is the "real" version, what defines individuality and personhood. The film also asks the timeless question of what happens when those who have been oppressed fight back. In Get Out, it was one individual- In Us, the retaliation is on an ever larger scale.
Nyong'o is great as Adelaide and her doppelganger, Red. She's fierce, vulnerable and maternal as Adelaide and as Red she's incredibly creepy but also deeply wounded by her past and what we eventually learn about her. The tragic implications of their backstories could form the basis of a whole other film. And like many horror films before it, Us's story is fueled by tragedy and trauma. Horror movies are- in a weird way- extreme therapy sessions for the audience and characters. Peele adds a twist to the catharsis experienced at the end, giving what at first feels like a typical ending a more complex and insidious layer.
The more I've thought about Us, the more I've liked it. The film showcases the oppressed and the marginalised fighting for their piece of the world. Us is appropriately titled since it's such simple and universal word. I also take the title to refer to the doppelgangers talking: us- humans, people who deserve the same basic dignity as anyone else.
The title also refers to us, the audience and our comfortable sense of identity. The film is about what happens our sense of identity is challenged. I'd say Peele is preparing us for but I think he's highlighting how it's already happening. We have to make room for each other. Like the aforementioned films I mentioned (The Birds, etc.) Us is about human survival but Peele subverts those films by having it about the supposed villains' survival. And Peele isn't merely preparing us for a revolution, he's clearly saying it's already begun.