Review: Jordan Peele’s “Us” Is a Colossal Cinematic Achievement
The success of Jordan Peele’s 2017 film, “Get Out,” bought him time, he said, in a recent interview with Le Monde—for his new film, “Us,” he had twice as many shoot days. The expanded time frame allowed him to produce a work of expanded ambition: “Us” bounces back and forth between 1986 and the present day, and its action, compared to “Get Out,” has a vast range—geographical, dramatic, and intellectual. The movie’s imaginative spectrum is enormous, four-dimensionally so: it delves deep into a literal underground world that lends the hallucinatory concept of the “sunken place” from “Get Out” a physical embodiment. And it captures the transformative, radical power of a political conscience, of an idea long held in secret, as it ripens and develops over decades’ worth of time. “Us” is nothing short of a colossal achievement.
Structured like a home-invasion drama, “Us” is a horror film—though saying so is like offering a reminder that “The Godfather” is a gangster film or that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is science fiction. Genre is irrelevant to the merits of a film, whether its conventions are followed or defied; what matters is that Peele cites the tropes and precedents of horror in order to deeply root his film in the terrain of pop culture—and then to pull up those roots. “Us” is a film that places itself within pop culture for diagnostic—and even self-diagnostic—purposes; its subject is, in large measure, cultural consciousness and its counterpart, the cultural unconscious. The crucial element of horror is political and moral—the realities that metaphorical fantasies evoke.
Peele reaches deep into the symbolic DNA of pop culture to discover a hidden, implicit history that he brings to the fore, at a moment of growing recognition that the deeds of the past still rage with silent and devastating force in the present time. After a title card notes the presence of a vast hidden network of tunnels (as for abandoned railways and mines) beneath American soil, the action begins with a bit of pop archeology: a shot of an old-fashioned tube TV set, on which a commercial is playing for “Hands Across America,” a 1986 philanthropic fund-raising event that involved an effort to create a human chain from coast to coast. (The announcer’s voice-over says, “Six million people will tether themselves together to fight hunger in America.”)
At that time, a young girl named Adelaide (though her name isn’t heard until much later in the film, when she’s an adult) is visiting a Santa Cruz beach with her squabbling parents. The child (Madison Curry) wanders off, enters a beachside haunted-house attraction, and, there, walking through a hall of mirrors reminiscent of the one in Orson Welles’s “The Lady from Shanghai,” sees not her reflection but her physical double. After the incident, her parents find her traumatized, but just what happened isn’t clear to them. In the present day, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), and they have two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), a teen-ager, and Jason (Evan Alex), who seems to be about eight. The Wilsons are prosperous—they’re heading to a summer house by a lake, where Gabe buys a speedboat (albeit a beat-up, run-down one) on a whim. It’s not clear what they do for a living; Adelaide used to dance but gave it up. What is clear is that she now has an aversion to the beach because of the haunted house, which is still there, in a slightly different guise. Her memories and flashbacks suggest that the trauma from whatever happened in the house has haunted her for her whole life.
The Wilsons are black, a fact that, as depicted, has little overt effect on their lives. Avoiding the stereotypes of black Americans in movies, Peele instead knowingly depicts them as a stereotype of a financially successful, socially stable, and cinematically average American family. It’s as though they naturally and unintentionally use what Boots Riley’s film, “Sorry to Bother You,” would call their “white voice,” the voice of white-dominated corporate prosperity. (There’s even a wink back to “Get Out,” regarding the Wilsons’ utterly untroubled confidence in the police.) Their summer companions are a white (and wealthier) family, the Tylers, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), and their twin daughters, Becca (Cali Sheldon) and Lindsey (Noelle Sheldon).
Back at their summer house that night, Adelaide experiences premonitions—she tells Gabe that she feels that her double is out there somewhere. “My whole life I’ve felt as if she’s still coming for me,” she says, and, on this night, she feels as if “she’s getting closer.” Moments later, Jason sees another family standing outside the house; it turns out to be four doubles of the Wilson family, distinguished by their matching red jumpsuits (reminiscent of prison uniforms) and tan sandals, their static posture—holding hands side by side in the manner of Hands Across America—and their silence. The doubles soon burst into the house, facing off against the Wilsons while Adelaide’s double (named, in the credits, Red)—the only one of the four doppelgängers to speak—states, in a hoarse and halting voice, her demands.
No less than “Get Out,” “Us” is a work of directorial virtuosity, in which Peele invests every moment, every twist, every diabolically conceived and gleefully invoked detail with graphic, psychological resonance and controlled tone, in performance and gesture. Here, as in “Get Out,” Peele employs point-of-view shots to put audience members in the position of the characters, to conjure subjective and fragmentary experience that reverberates with the metaphysical eeriness of their suddenly doubled world. (Recurring nods to Hitchcock’s “The Birds” suggests a mysterious transformation of the natural order.) Exactly as the title promises (and as the drama delivers, when Jason identifies the intruders, saying, “It’s us”), the movie turns the screen into a funhouse mirror in which the distortions prove to be truer representations of the state of things—in the world of its viewers—than more familiar, realistic depictions.
A distinctively American vision is planted throughout the action of “Us,” with an explicit and monitory allusion to the notion of national destiny. As a child, Adelaide sees, at the beach, a silent beachcomber-prophet with a sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11.” In that chapter, God grants people land on the condition that they keep their covenant with Him, but when they revert to “the sins of their ancestors,” they face divine retribution: “Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’ ” When Adelaide asks the family’s doubles “What are you people?,” the wording of the question (not “who” but “what”) is less offensive than it is literally ontological: Are they alive or dead? Are they zombies or robots or creatures from space or figments of their imagination? Red’s answer is “We’re Americans.” (Even the title, “Us,” doubles as “U.S.”)
“Us” is intensely suspenseful (it would be sinful to spoil its twists or even to hint at its scares) and moderately gory—yet the bloodshed rigorously serves the drama. It’s never there to gross out viewers or to test their threshold of shock or disgust. (And I’m squeamish.) In particular, the explicit violence provides a serious view of life-threatening dangers that compel bourgeois characters to get their hands dirty with the act of killing—it shows what they’re up against and what they have to face, and to do, in an effort to save themselves. Yet “Us” also offers that safety, that salvation, with bitter irony. (It brings to mind Florence Reece’s pro-union song “Which Side Are You On?”) It’s a movie that, true to its genre, is plotted with hair-trigger mechanisms that tweak suspense with surprises—intellectual ones along with dramatic and sensory ones.
With its foretold emphasis on tunnels, “Us” proves to be something like Peele’s version of “Notes from Underground,” complete with its fiery arias of torment from those whose voices otherwise go unheard. (There’s a relevant wink along the way at Samuel Fuller’s jangling masterwork “Shock Corridor.”) The term that describes the link between the Wilsons and their doubles is called “tethering”—and that word, in its many grammatical forms, recurs throughout the film (not least, in repeated allusions to Hands Across America). The very nature of bonds—social bonds, voluntary and involuntary connections of some people to others—is at the very heart of the movie, the desire for solidarity with some, the intended or oblivious dissociation from others.
The movie’s many pop-culture references—whether kids wearing T-shirts for “Thriller” and “Jaws” or the presence of “Good Vibrations” and “Fuck tha Police” on the soundtrack—are no mere decorations. Peele’s radical vision of inequality, of the haves and the have-nots, those who are in and those who are out, is reflected brightly and brilliantly in his view of pop culture, current and classic (including riffs on romantic melodrama and on the notion of emotional expression as a luxury in itself). Mass media is presented in “Us” as a rich people’s culture, if not in the immediate origins of its artists, then in the production, distribution, marketing, platforming, and lawyering of the work—in the very notion of its valuable and ubiquitous legacy. (In the Le Monde interview, Peele cited the soundtrack as another principal benefit of his higher budget.)
“Us” highlights the unwitting complicity of even apparently well-meaning and conscientious people in an unjust order that masquerades as natural and immutable but is, in fact, the product of malevolent designs that leave some languishing in the perma-shadows. (Designed by whom? The movie doesn’t name names, but it winks and nods and nudges in a general direction that runs from the sea to the lake.) It dramatizes this world, but with a twist—one that (avoiding spoilers) risks overturning conventional values and sympathies with ecstatic fervor. Suffice it to say that “Us” reserves empathy for its unwitting villains while gleefully deriding their comfortably normal state of obliviousness—and the ordinary absurdities of the world at large.
The movie’s exquisite perceptiveness and its alluring details are part of a vision that ranges between the outrageously sardonic and the grandly tragic. It renders the movie, for all its suspense, violence, and moral outrage, as much of a joy to recall, moment by moment, as it is to watch. Zora, after wielding an improvised weapon in a desperate, defensive rage, wiggles her arm in fatigue, as if she’d just completed a household chore. Gabe, challenging the doppelgängers with a metal baseball bat, adopts a stereotypical black-dialect voice as if, by doing so, he could make himself more menacing. Jason, suspicious of his own double (named Pluto), crafts a chess-like strategy leading to results and images of anguished grandeur. There are all kinds of magnificently world-built elements that only make sense in the light of big, late reveals, such as a strange and bloody preview, on the Santa Cruz beach, of the Wilson family’s doubles, and Adelaide’s early success as a dancer (and her double’s ability to use it against her).
This world-building has a stark thematic simplicity that both belies and inspires immense complexity. “Us” is a movie that defies the jigsaw-fit, quasi-academic interpretation that pervades recent criticism. As much as the movie offers a metaphorical vision of the enormities of social and political life, it also offers implications of an inner world, a projection of Peele-iana that maps his personal vision onto that of the world at large—and that, in turn, calls upon viewers to receive that world as intensely and consciously and imaginatively as he tries to do. The results of doing so, he suggests, are intrinsically political, even revolutionary.