Horror is often unfairly written off as an unsophisticated film genre that only captures the audience’s attention through cheap tricks, tired plots, and buckets and buckets of blood. But Jordan Peele’s emotionally compelling 2017 megahit “Get Out” exemplifies the notion that horror films have always had the capacity to captivate and even provide poignant political commentaries. Although his highly anticipated sophomore project, “Us,” is a success overall, it lacks the focus and clarity of Peele’s debut. The film loses its conceptual precision as it progresses into its second and third act, but the psychological intrigue and surprise ending nonetheless make it a powerful and worthwhile allegorical terror ride.
“Us” follows the Wilson family’s journey to their summer home in Santa Cruz, Calif. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabriel (Winston Duke) hope to provide their track star daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and wallflower magician son Jason (Evan Alex) a vacation full of bonding by the boardwalk. But their plans are complicated by Adelaide’s lingering suspicion that something evil is stalking her. Her paranoia is revealed to stem from a traumatic childhood experience at a hall of mirrors at the very same boardwalk attraction that she and her family have now returned to. Eventually, Adelaide chooses to cut their trip short. However, before they can leave their summer home, a foreboding family of four arrives on their driveway.
Despite Gabriel’s best effort, these individuals, called the Tethered, force their way inside the summer home and threaten the Wilsons’ lives. While the home invasion, cat-and-mouse murder plot is a familiar premise within the genre (“Scream,” “You’re Next”), Peele breathes life back into the concept with a clever twist. The Wilsons band together — as one might have guessed — to take on their home invaders, only to soon realize that the invaders are physically identical to themselves. The Wilson family must not only triumph over their demented doppelgangers but also to ask what it means to kill versions of themselves.
When asked who they are, Red, Adelaide’s Tethered twin soul, says that she and her fellow doppelgangers are “Americans.” While that response may initially puzzle some, this line excellently reflects the film’s political commentary. The Tethered are a group of individuals forced to live half-lives underground, out of sight and within the margins of society. What at the surface may appear to be an invasion of the body-snatchers-esque horror flick, is — in Peele fashion — a multi-layered commentary on class inequality within the United States, or “Us.”
While the premise of “Us” and the film’s ostensible aims may seem heavy, Peele and his cast do a phenomenal job at relieving moments of tension with side-splitting comedy. Duke’s performance as Gabriel gives off supreme dad vibes; he is well-intentioned but embarrassingly out of touch with the youth, even dabbing on occasion. But his presence was ultimately eclipsed by Adelaide, whose chilling backstory and fortitude during moments of panic had me side-eyeing Gabriel’s ineptitude during the family’s struggle to survive. The comedic relief he provided certainly enriched the film but also made his intermittent cluelessness annoying to watch. I found myself swatting his character to the side Frances McDormand-style.
Nyong’o’s dual performance as Adelaide, the Wilson family’s matriarch, and Red, her Tethered counterpart, was superb. I cannot emphasize enough Nyong’o’s skill at being scary. Red’s chainsmoker voice and ghostly soliloquies, paired with Adelaide’s guttural yelps amid murder, are disturbing in the best way.
The film’s emphasis on the slight income disparity between the Wilsons and their wealthy white frenemies, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker), convinced me that their above-ground monetary squabbles juxtaposed the squalor that the Tethered lived in. But a compelling argument could be made that the fire-red jumpsuit uniforms of the Tethered — and to a lesser extent their coffee-colored Chacos — represent any number of fringe political groups who have championed crimson and sought to dominate America, like the alt-right. The film’s weakness and strengths both reside in this ambiguity. “Us” is a constellation of fright-filled sequences and teary-eyed, stomach-churning scenes that can be interpreted as socially resonant in multiple different ways.
This ambiguity mostly works, providing audiences a chance to assemble puzzle pieces so distinctly shaped that we forget to care about how imprecisely they sometimes fit. But it also means that “Us” is not always a tidy film, and not nearly as tidy as its predecessor “Get Out.” The world Peele builds is effectively unsettling, but the film left me with more logistical questions about the Tethered than it seemed prepared to answer. During some moments of the film, I gained the feeling that Peele and I were both uncertain what existed in the world of the film outside of the frame being shown. This incomplete rendering made it difficult to fully suspend disbelief and lean into fear.
Nyong’o’s performances, the Tethered’s eerie chortles and clicks, and the film’s varied social commentary on modern America make for another formidable Jordan Peele horror movie that is well worth your time, if not Oscar-worthy.