“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
“Hell’s half empty and all the devils are here.”
-The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2
Jordan Peele’s Us is a work of mature, artful cinema, in the guise of a horror film. Not that horror films can’t be mature or artful, but the genre doesn’t demand such a standard. When horror reaches for art and falls short, it emphasizes its limitations, but when it succeeds, as it surely does here, it’s cause for celebration. Combine Get Out with this film and we can recognize the emergence of a new significant cinematic auteur, and also enjoy the gift of two in what hopefully will be a series of superb films.
Us is a compelling exercise in cinematic technique, packed full of clever tricks and turns of the cinematic phrase. It’s like watching a master jazz musician drop in references, musical allusions and sly asides while all the while settle into a smooth and effortless groove. Peele’s most obvious trick is the use of doubles, both visually and thematically. Going back to German Expressionism, with earlier literary examples, doubles imply a hidden and contradictory nature to character, society and the nature of reality itself. The title itself is something of a throwaway with a double meaning (“Us”, “US” – get it?), but the references come so fast and so frequently that on first viewing it’s almost overwhelming. There are repeated references to Jeremiah 11:11 (quoted above), which not only underlines the narrative arc of the film, but also gives us the wonderful “11 – 11” image representing a family of four, which is a mirror image of both itself and another foursome. But it doesn’t stop there: the father of the family at the centre of the narrative, Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) watches a baseball game with the score 11 – 11, and soon afterwards his wife Adelaide (the absolutely stupendous Lupita Nyong’o) puts their son Jason (Evan Alex) to bed at 11:11. And so on and so forth – every minute there seems to be even more information given about this story in this way.
The story itself concerns the Wilson family on a vacation to their Santa Cruz summer home, where they find themselves at first under attack by four people, dressed in identical red jumpsuits and sporting scissors, who bear an uncanny resemblance to the characters themselves. But this home invasion narrative is only the film’s first act. The story develops into a grandiose and richly metaphorical narrative touching on themes of class, race and identity, all in the context of thrilling horror.
Spoilers for this film pose an interesting challenge, because Peele, like many master horror and suspense directors, puts it all up front. The very first shot of the film, of rabbits in cages, is simultaneously deeply meaningful and maddeningly obscure. (Rabbits, by the way, appear often near the film’s beginning, including on the t-shirt of the family’s daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and in the form of Adelaide’s childhood stuffed toy.) After seeing the complete film, one realizes that Peele tips his hand early and often, but by parceling out narrative information and relying on misdirection, he keeps the audience guessing until almost the last (and horrifically chilling) frame.
A scan of the video tapes on the shelf of a young Adelaide’s home in 1986 gives some hints, especially the presence of C.H.U.D. and The Goonies. Peele’s obvious reverence for 80s horror is apparent throughout, but that reading is ultimately superficial. He’s telling us something much more profound about the nature of human identity and humanity itself. The film has been compared to Kubrick’s greatest work, and in terms of quality this is fitting, but in terms of content the closest resemblance is this theme, of the primal and animalistic nature of our species, buried under what ultimately amounts to thin layers of civilization.
That’s not to say this is in any way a “heavy” or overtly philosophical film. One reason why it has had such a strong opening weekend is that Us delivers on its genre expectations. To put it simply, it’s scary as hell. Nyong’o’s performance is one for the ages, but to explain precisely why would be to give too much of the story away. But there isn’t a weak link anywhere in the cast, nor in the superb cinematography Mike Gioulakis. Consider the opening sequence, set in 1986, in which a young Adelaide becomes separated from her father at a carnival (a carnival, as if the references to the fantastic elements of expressionism weren’t think enough!) and wanders to the beach at night, dropping her candy apple into the sand. The sequence feels at once nostalgic and nightmarish, and when it is reprised towards the film’s end, the nightmarish quotient is significantly raised. Gioulakis captures the textures of the water, the cloudy sky, the shoreline and the eerie carnivalesque glow in equal measure. We’re seeing the sequence through the eyes of a child, with low angles and half-heard snatches of adult dialogue (complete with telling asides hinting at dysfunctionality in her parents’ relationship). But young Adelaide has that child’s courage, and curiosity. What she finds at the end of that small journey is the crux of the whole film, but that isn’t apparent until later. It’s Nyong’o who has to sell that tortured past (and more besides) through thousands of tiny gestures, and she does so with the brilliance of the best film actors of all-time. If the film had to rest on her capable shoulders, it would be remarkable. But given the excellence of the rest of the cast (including a superbly disturbing Elisabeth Moss), the film becomes a work of true genius.
The less said about the film’s twists the better, but it’s enough to say that there are at least three: two you see coming, and one you don’t. It’s the last one that will haunt the audience’s dreams forever. With Us, Jordan Peele has earned a seat at the head table of horror, and we the audience are all the better for it.