You know you’re in the hands of a natural born filmmaker when you can feel yourself being tugged, as if by invisible forces, from one shot to the next, into a film’s fiendish design. It’s that sensation that is provoked by Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort Us, which from the start displays Peele’s ability to fray his audience’s nerves. It’s his exacting precision that grabs you by the throat from the start and never lets you go. It’s Peele and his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis who seemingly make the frame itself a source of terror. Together they take us through a looking glass that asks, how Americans are going to live with ourselves after being reminded who we really are.
Get Out was, as they say, a hard act to follow: a slow-burn supernatural thriller that was really a damning satire about the way racism survives and thrives, even in the coziest liberal enclaves. With Us, Peele remains a incisive social critic and continues to show that he’s hardly devoid of ideas. Peele has no interest in exhausting the same bag of tricks, with Us still operating in a subversive mode. Peele here adds ingenious needle drops of songs like “Good Vibrations”. While Michael Abels continues to deliver a chilly, captivating score. Though it’s the satire of racial animus in Get Out that has no real equivalent here. The fresh terrors that Peele inflicts on his protagonists — the Wilson’s, a black family of four on a less-than-idyllic vacation in sunny California — have nothing to do with the few white characters in their midst. The story’s most disturbing implication, as stated by its title, is that we are always our own worst enemy, susceptible to an evil darkness that comes from within.
It’s a notion that is hardly original (and you at times feel that in the film), but the genius of Us is that it explores and sustains the conceit in a way that is both amusing in its literal-mindedness and electrifying in its imaginative energy. It’s the one night where the doppelgänger intruders crash the vacation of the Wilson’s, that the heart of Us comes to life. Played by the same actors as their counterparts, the intruders are nonverbal, with the exception of Luptia Nyong’o’s double. Her double speaks in a ghostly rasp — one of the creepiest aspects of Nyong’o’s sensational performance — it’s a rasp of someone whose lungs have been crushed underfoot, a rasp of someone who hasn’t been able to breathe for years. “We’re Americans,” she hisses as her terrified other asks who and what they are. Couple that line with an alternative reading of the title in all-caps, and it becomes clear that Peele is reaching for some point about the national character. The ugly truth about who we are as a country, buried deep below.
The themes at play in Us — the return of the repressed, the duality of the self, the loss of personal identity — are not particularly hard to grasp, yet they are sure open for further interpretation. The closing twists, of which one in particular is no less satisfying for being noticeable a few minutes in advance, are ones that demand an immediate re-viewing. Sure, the twists bring holes to the world created, but in the end the “why” for me became much more interesting than the “how”. Then there’s the all-American setting — a beachside carnival under a summer sun, a reference to the 1986 Hands Across America campaign — which only further cement that the film’s title should more accurately be read as “U.S.”
Us not only belongs to Jordan Peele, but to Lupita Nyong’o as well. Nyong’o sustains every moment of Us by distilling innumerable emotional layers — the unshakable resolve of a mother and wife, the troubled gaze of a trauma survivor, the lasting incomprehension of a lost child — into a performance for the scream-queen history books. All of which becomes even more incredible, as at the same time Nyong’o is acting opposite a radically distinct version of herself. It’s through every moment of Us that Nyong’o has you in her grip.
If Get Out didn’t already, Us proves that Jordan Peele is a legit directorial tour de force. As with Us he’s taken us back into his funhouse of an imagination, delivering a damning look at the inner darkness of ourselves that we choose to ignore. Examining our growing comfortability with expressing hatred and violence and letting darkness unite “Us”.