Jordan Peele is one for details. As Us progresses you may realize that sandals have never seemed so menacing, that rabbits definitely don’t have souls, and that we were all blind to how creepy the words “hands across America” are. It’s this specificity that produces the most unnerving elements of Peele’s sophomore film— and makes it all the more zany, hilarious, and chilling.
While on vacation with her family in Santa Cruz, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) relives a traumatic event from her childhood involving an encounter with a doppelgänger. Her haunted memories gradually escalate until she literally comes face to face with them when her evil twin— and an entire evil duplicate family— show up in her driveway, clad in red coveralls and tan sandals, bearing golden scissors.
What happens from that point is best left to be discovered in a dark movie theatre with popcorn on hand to stress-eat, but the wild journey Adelaide and her family go through is likely more expansive and bizarre than you would expect. Peele’s film makes sweeping observations about America and suppression, privilege and revenge, while never losing sight of that old horror adage: the real monsters are human.
Comparisons to Get Out are inevitable, but Us fits into an entirely different subgenre of horror. At times the violence is slasher to the point of slapstick, featuring splattered blood and acrobatics and makeshift weapons. References to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Jaws, and video games make it clear that violence is so entrenched in American culture that it could never be the film’s consummate terror. As the title promises, killing the imposters isn’t as important as coming to terms with what they represent. It’s also a comedic film, with familiar family dynamics and some truly inspired needle drops keeping the film funny even through dark moments.
Peele’s visual language is unflinching and patient, straying far from the gray palette and quick-cutting that’s currently popular. The cinematography alludes to some Spielbergian techniques (such as long reaction shots) but ultimately establishes its own style, using centered framing, slow dollys, wide shots, and bird’s eye view to great effect in revealing the unexpected. It’s refreshing to see so much of the characters between cuts, which showcases Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible, for-the-ages performance.
At times the film gets caught up in its own logistics and ideas, and those looking for symbolism and analogies will likely find an over-abundance, many of which lead to dead ends. But taken at face value, the details and hyper-specificity in its design enhance the film’s nightmarish effect, like a dream where random inclusions feel significant even though you’re not sure why.
One of the last sequences in the film features a stunning montage that cross-cuts a beautiful dance with a terrifying showdown, marrying beauty and horror. Similarly, whether or not the film’s ideas (and ending) land for you, Us is undeniably gripping in its dance between defining and defying the idea of “us” versus “them.”
About Merritt Mecham
Hello! My name is Merritt, and I’m a writer based in Salt Lake City, UT.
I have work experience in radio, film, and education. These days you can find me working in the Film & Media Arts Department at the University of Utah.
I’m also available for freelance writing. Read my work.
I’d love to work with you! Check out my resume.