‘Us’ is a Bold and Thought-Provoking Commentary on What Lies Beneath the All-American Idyll

In its opening weekend, Us banked $70 million at the US box office. That figure made it the third largest opening for a horror move, ever, and at the time of writing, the film has a 94% fresh rating from film critics on Rotten Tomatoes. The commercial and critical consensus around the movie seems to be aligned – but that’s where the consensus around Us appears to end.

The film is the second outing for Get Out writer, director, and all-round craftsman Jordan Peele, who this time turns his eye to the most fearsome and loathsome monster of all: ourselves. While it’s perhaps impossible to talk about Us without talking about Get Out, the comparison does feel unfair – while Get Out was transparently a social commentary that hit the right (if not perfect) blend of horror, humour, and tension, Us is a different beast altogether. The result is something more entrenched in genre tropes, more ambitious in its filmmaking, and much, much messier to deal with.

We start in 1986, seeing the world through the eyes of young Adelaide Wilson – a small girl in an oversized Thriller t-shirt, trailing behind her bickering parents and taking in the bright lights of a Santa Cruz boardwalk fair. It’s of little surprise that when her distracted father turns his back, Adelaide heads for shore and finds herself alone but for a hall of mirrors, and the sight of herself projected back to her.

What she sees in the hall of mirrors hangs heavy as we jump to the present day. Grown Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), now with a family of her own, makes a return trip to Santa Cruz, goofy husband and two children in tow. After a visit to the beach, where youngest child Jason is exposed to a scarecrow-like figure in the same place his mother wandered some thirty years ago, the family returns to the supposedly safer confines of their holiday home.

In quick succession, we see power failures, sudden darkness, and shadowy figures outside – the trifecta of signs that things are not okay. The arrival of these figures, holding hands like The Shining‘s Grady twins, except doubled and in red prison-like jumpsuits, signals the beginning of the Wilson’s misfortunes. Unlike other staples of the genre, however, the invasion of ‘the other’ would more accurately be described as the invasion of the self. Enter ‘the Tethered’ – the underworld version of the Wilsons.

The first Wilson to encounter these subterranean menaces is Gabe, Adelaide’s husband. Played by Winston Duke, in a light turn for an actor most audiences will recognise as the imposing M’Baku from Black Panther, here playing the daddest of dads and giving the movie a good chunk of its heart and levity. Elsewhere in the film, we are treated to solid performances from the films supporting cast, and a particularly strong show from a delightfully demented Elisabeth Moss (the second doppelganger she has played, following the sublime 2014 sci-fi The One I Love).

There’s no discussion worth having about the acting in Us, however, without focusing on the turns and breadth of Lupita Nyong’o’s performance. Much has rightly been made of the fact that Us has the actress in her first lead role after winning the Oscar in 2013, an enraging loss made all the more apparent by the clear strength of her performance here. The sheer amount of work she has to do alone is commendable, not to mention the sinister and commanding way she embodies Adelaide and her shadow counterpart. Some parts of the film have the expected peer-through-your-fingers moments of terror (though perhaps not as many as the trailer might suggest), but at no point do you want to take your eyes off Nyong’o.

The arrival of the doppelgangers kicks the movie into a genre shift – from thriller to home invasion-cum-chase movie. And it’s this shift which makes Us a difficult film to love. It never feels as tense or as gripping as its opening scene-setting, and while its closing act does tie together some threads from earlier in the movie, there’s too much exposition for it to feel like a natural conclusion. In some ways, watching the film felt like watching a great thriller, then a great home invasion film, and concluding with a riff on Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, with the snatchers reaching up from below. It’s consistently mesmerising, supported in no small part by Peele’s close-up, anxious framing and a deeply affective score from Michael Abels that meshes hip-hop staples with sparse orchestral backdrops – but at the end of the film, there is a sense that the promise of the opening act wasn’t fulfilled.

Us asks a lot of questions of its audience, and trades in subtext and traditions of the genre. From beginning to end, it’s consistently surprising, bold, and thought-provoking, serving up straight, good-fun horror as well as Lynchian layers and commentary on what lies beneath the all-American idyll. All in all, Us is an assured second effort from a director carving new territory in horror films, with the performances to match. It’s a shame the plotting feels weak in an otherwise strong film, but perhaps like the Tethered, it’s sometimes best to not prod too much at what lies beneath.

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