Anyone who was afraid that Jordan Peele would have a sophomore slump after the massive success of Get Out (2017) need not worry because Us delivers as a bold, nuanced horror movie, one that strikes some comedic beats but is dark in its premise, social commentary, and kills. The core cast pulls off stellar performances, especially playing their eerie, grinning doppelgängers dubbed “the tethered.” With Us, Peele has invented a new kind of monster, similar to the way that George A. Romero created the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead. Like Romero’s zombies, the tethered are literally a reflection of us, or as Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelgänger Red says, the tethered are “Americans,” a reflection of what it would be like to fall a step or two down the social ladder, a lower-class that often exists beneath the surface, ignored or mocked.
Us primarily centers around Adelaide Wilson’s story (Nyong’o), who, as a little girl, wandered away from her parents at the Santa Cruz boardwalk and drifted into the fun house, where she encountered her doppelgänger for the first time. During the first 15 minutes, we don’t know exactly what Adelaide encountered in the fun house, but the story slowly unfolds as the movie progresses, until we have a clear understanding of why Adelaide is reluctant to spend another summer at the beach with her family. In the opening sequence and during the flashbacks interspersed throughout the movie, Madison Curry gives a strong performance as a young Adelaide, who, like the rest of the cast, has to also play the role of her double. As young Adelaide slow-walks and eventually enters the shadowy fun house, Peele makes it clear that this is going to be a straight forward horror movie. The film immediately acknowledges past genre movies. In the opening scene, young Adelaide is seated before a TV, watching a Hands for America ad, which has major significance to both the social commentary and the story of the tethered. The TV is bookended by VHS tapes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and C.H.U.D., which makes more sense once the story of the tethered is revealed. Some of the boardwalk scenes are a nice nod to The Lost Boys.
Once the first flashback concludes, the film shifts to the present, and Peele takes his time building up the family of four, making us generally care about them, from the sibling dynamics of Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), to the very likeable and funny family patriarch, Gabe (Winston Duke), to the rattled and wide-eyed matriarch, Adelaide. This is a family that we root for, and when their doppelgängers show up for the first time, lurking and holding hands just feet from the front door, we fear for the family’s safety and hope that they’ll make it out alive. The home invasion scene is one of the best since Funny Games and The Strangers, two films that Peele had Nyong’o watch to prepare for the role.
Initially, we don’t know much about the tethered, and the only one who really has any dialogue is Red, who gives a monologue about “the shadow” and “the girl,” and how the girl grew up to have a perfect, middle-class life, complete with a smart husband and two adorable children. When asked what or who they are, Red simply responds, “We’re Americans.” Through the creation of the tethered, Peele offers his social commentary, one a bit broader than Get Out. The tethered are indeed us, the Americans that we too often ignore, hence why they live underground, a failed mind control experiment, until they decide rise to the surface and launch a bloody revolution, wielding golden scissors and lining the streets of the beach town with the bodies of the upper-middle class, both black and white. They’re also an indictment of the Hands Across America initiative, which was a call for all Americans to join hands on a single day in 1986 to raise money for homelessness. Yet, at the same time, the country was facing an AIDS crisis and President Reagan was busy blaming the poor for their situation. He said in May of that year, “I don’t believe that there is anyone that is going hungry in America simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them… it is by people not knowing where or how to get this help.”
More than Get Out, Us is a film very much steeped in class issues. Gabe buys a sputtering tug boat to impress the family’s white, snobby friends, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidicker). At one point, Gabe says that Josh bought a new car just to piss him off. Furthermore, though the Wilsons are doing just fine, they’re not as wealthy as the Tylers. Kitty drones on about her latest plastic surgeries and how she could have made it as a big movie star, if not for having kids. Yet, the Tylers also have doubles, a sign that they too can slip a few social rungs and everything they have can disappear if life takes a sudden turn for the worse. Moss is especially effective in the role of her double, tracing her lips with lipstick, grinning into a mirror, and running the blade of her scissors along her cheek. She truly embodies the inversion of what Kitty considers to be beautiful.
Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide
But the real highlight of Us is Nyong’o’s performance as both Red, the leader of the tethered revolution, and Adelaide, who keeps her family close and grows more primal as the film progresses, to the point that her white outfit and hands are eventually blood-soaked. As she showed in her break-out performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, Nyung’o is stellar at playing a demanding, emotional role. From her facial expressions to her guttural wails when she has to kill any of the tethered, Nyong’o’s performance is a must-see, especially the final show-down between Adelaide and Red, which is a beautiful, visceral scene.
Peele made it clear in a tweet days before the film’s release that Us is a horror film. Perhaps he doesn’t want to rehash the nonsensical “elevated horror” horror debate that films like Get Out sparked. With Us, he fully embraces his love for the genre. From the multiple references to other horror movies, to the nerve-rattling score by Michael Abels, who he also worked with for Get Out, Us is a film very much aware of the genre in which its operating and how to keep an audience on the edge of its seat. It’s an ambitious film, one that shows why Peele should continue working in the horror genre. He knows that horror has always been a great vehicle to address deeper issues, and with Us, he makes a bold indictment of 1980s America and current class divisions.