Jordan Peele successfully combines satire with calculated, house-invasion horror.
After the success of Get Out, a smart satirical thriller, writer-director Jordan Peele has created a horrific fable that popularises our fear of the other. A reinterpretation of the Jekyll and Hyde motif, Us satirises the dark side of human nature. The title evokes the abbreviation for United States thus echoing the multitude of double meanings present throughout the film. This is a mirror-image, home-invasion horror film aiming to demonstrate that our biggest enemy is ourselves.
The unsettling scene of a young girl encountering a terrifying version of her reflection, at a hall of mirrors in Santa Cruz, declares the ominous tone of the film. Haunted by this incident, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) has difficulty relaxing on a trip to that same beach with her family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke); daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). As Adelaide begins to notice unsettling coincidences, she pleads with Gabe to leave their summer home. However, Jason notices a shadowy family standing on the driveway, and the Wilsons are forced to confront their ‘tethered’ counterparts.
The plot of Us is complicated. The film definitely requires a second viewing if audience’s wish to fully decipher the rich material that Peele offers. The narrative depends on a dream-style logic that unsettles you. Although some may argue that a lack of exposition gives way to plot holes, it actually works to make the audience uncomfortable. Our lack of understanding aligns us with the protagonists, as we are also encouraged to calculate solutions at break-neck speed. This results in pacing that inspires dread and embroils the audience in a sense of chaos.
Since its release, Us has been subject to educated arguments regarding the true meaning of its subject matter. Is it merely a tale of vengeance or is it comment on the functions of society? Unlike Get Out, Peele does not offer a set explanation of events. Rather, he leaves the audience in control of interpretation – we must decide for ourselves what makes the ‘tethered’ so scary.
By combining home-invasion horror with domestic comedy, Peele creates a paradoxical narrative that comforts and chills. In its opening scenes, the film takes time to establish the relationships between characters, as well as the family’s strengths and weaknesses, in order to ensure that the audience are deeply invested in their actions. As the narrative culminates in chaos, we are encouraged to root for the Wilsons, despite the acts of horror they are forced to engage in.
It is clear that Peele understands the horror genre inside out. However, the film does not depend on traditional genre tropes; instead, it incorporates conventions from classic 80s horror films that are likely to have featured in our childhood nightmares. A scene involving something hidden beneath a black, murky lake echoes the opening Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Another scene, where twin girls leer over the Wilson family, is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Peele’s attention to small details is essential to Us’ fear factor.
The cast of Us command their double roles with a conviction that makes you forget that they are played by the same actor. Winston Duke successfully projects the disjunction between goofy, loveable Gabe and imposing Abraham. Similarly, Shahadi Wright Joseph exploits the difference between Zora’s innocence and Umbrae’s maniacal ambition. Whilst Us is clearly an ensemble piece, Lupita Nyong’o delivers an intricate performance that combines chilling physicality with powerful resilience. Nyongo’o constructs a heroine that the horror genre needs by demonstrating that women are capable of fighting back on their own.
Special credit must also go to Michael Abel’s score – a skin-crawling masterpiece. The score’s incorporation of gothic, psycho inspired drones illustrates an experience of physical and emotional trauma. The remix of Luniz’s I got 5 on it and a clever use of NWA’s Fuck tha Police amplifies the themes of Peele’s script whilst emphasising its horrifying effect.
Us is emblematic of Peele’s evolving craftmanship. It is clear that Jordan Peele is spearheading a new path in horror.