Us : Movie Review
What defines us? Our personalities? Loves? Hates? Possessions? Family? Or is it that which lurks beneath the surface, waiting for its chance to rise and announce itself to the world? Are we really who we purport to be, or are we really who we become when we’re pushed to extremes when our true selves – usually the opposite from our normal – come raging through our eyes and skins? All of this and more are the foundation of Jordan Peele’s new thriller Us. There are quite a few different meanings intended through the use of this simple two-letter word – some which the movie shows you, and some which come to you after hours and days of wondering what the hell it was you just witnessed.
Its root implication is one of division, of taking sides. Us vs. Them. A notion which constantly mires us as humans. As seen in Us, we’re shown a simple divide between a family and those trying to kill them. Peele doesn’t take his time setting up the story’s intricacies like his slow-rolling of his landmark debut, Get Out; instead, he thrusts us straight into this conflict by starkly establishing lines in the sand (somewhat literally) and prepping us for an all-out assault.
What’s terrific about a filmmaker like Peele is his studied use of well-worn horror tropes and visuals. Instead of milking them, he turns them into something fresh with nuanced layering and a darker intent than to simply scare us. He wants to haunt us by indelibly searing his images into our heads, and we won’t shake them long after we’ve left the theater. With the thoughtful Us, he starts with a fairly standard home-invasion story and combines it with shades of “The Twilight Zone,” Karyn Kusama’s unforgettable film The Invitation, Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and our darkest nightmares.
Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) are meant to represent the all-American family, driving to a vacation in their deceased grandmother’s Santa Cruz beach house. Gabe seems to be stuck in the material world, constantly valuating himself by what he has and comparing himself to their friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss). Teenage Zora stays glued to her phone, tuning everyone out with the earbuds dangling from her head at all times, especially her brat brother whose existence serves only to be a pain in her ass.
But it’s Adelaide we’re focused on, as she wants to be nowhere near the beach, shuddering at her memories of a harrowing occurrence detailed in the film’s opening prologue. As a child, she gets lost in a boardwalk mirror maze, desperately trying to find a way out and only encountering her reflection… until she goes past a mirror and sees something she definitely should not be seeing. Throughout the film, we’re microdosed with little bits of this night until the film reveals a much larger, more sinister picture.
She feels like whatever business happened that night isn’t finished, and that whatever she found in that mirror maze is coming back for her. Of course, Gabe – being the good-time, manly-man out for some fun – brushes this off, until he’s gifted the unwelcome sight of four strangers clad in red jumpsuits standing silent in their driveway. Upon a sudden hand signal, the larger of the four starts walking toward the front door, while the smaller two dart off and flank the house.
Simple stuff, right? We’ve seen films like this before, where bad memories plague the film’s protagonist, only to be instrumental in their inevitable triumph, yes? Wrong. This is where Jordan Peele veers sharply into the unknown, forging a path with his unique tone where the unexpected suddenly makes the most sense. His razor-sharp vision takes modern American tensions and projects them into the tighter, more streamlined focus of horror cinema, with a satirical voice not experienced since Tobe Hooper’s 1973 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
One of this film’s targets is American consumerism. Everywhere we look in the movie, there’s some kind of touchstone – be it a car, a boat, the Tylers’ large house, a prize won at a boardwalk game, even the clothing some of the kids wear – pointing to what money buys and how we want more. As mentioned before, Gabe is a man obsessed with the material, at one point dumbly bargaining for his life with his wallet and car keys when his adversaries are obviously not interested in anything of the sort. When given the chance to run, he’s perfectly fine staying with creature comforts until the whole mess is sorted out.
The archetypal protagonist/antagonist lines are blurred à la Die Hard in the sense that we see the hero as the protagonist trying to stop whatever scheme is going down. We’re all rooting for the Wilsons to survive the night and to emerge victorious, but the film has us reassessing who the “us” in the “us vs. them” truly is. “Us” might mean the Wilson family versus the intruders; however, the “us” slowly becomes who we thought of as “them,” and we’re suddenly faced with upending any kind of preconceived notion we’ve had about these intruders.
Or does “us” represent the American mainstream vs. the underbelly? Those who call themselves Americans vs. those who call themselves “real Americans”? A sentence uttered in the movie combined with the current sociopolitical climate lends credence to this angle; the larger metaphor seems to be pointing at those who can’t destroying those who can. As Peele says in a recent interview, Americans are turning on each other, eating each other through constant daily attacks without remorse or consequence. Those who we thought were “us,” much like the film, are fast becoming “them.”
As the only one who’s been caught between “us” and “them” before, Lupita Nyong’o deserves every accolade for her performance as Adelaide, a mother frantically trying to protect her family from the specters of her past. Nyong’o plays another role key to this entire film, the revelation of which cannot be described or summarized. The axiom “I am my own worst enemy” has been brought to frightening corporeal life with Nyong’o anchoring Us solidly, providing a wonderful combination of sheer terror, maternal warmth, and psychotic rage. Her wide eyes, physicality, and range plumb the depths of each character’s individual emotions, with Nicholas Mounsour’s editing and Mike Gioulakis’ photography making the most of Nyong’o’s magic.
The mirror maze prologue is only a hint as to what lies ahead in Jordan Peele’s Us. He reveals true horror when we step beyond those mirrors and into ourselves, and he does so without an ounce of hesitation or fear. Us is another bold, dominating entry in his body of work, capable of powering thoughts which will make us lie awake at night. Who is “us”? Who is “them”? And what happens when each becomes the other? Repeat viewings are absolutely required to make more sense of these questions; don’t be surprised if you’re disturbed by the answers.
MPAA Rating: R for violence/terror and language.
Running time: 116 minutes.
Released by Universal Pictures.