In Us, writer-director Jordan Peele doubles down on the fixed, full-frontal close-ups he favored in Get Out. And for good reason: there are double the faces to look at.
Another identity-dismembering horror movie, Us focuses on a seemingly happy family of four who encounter malevolent doppelgangers while vacationing at their California summer house. Having invaded the home and subdued the vacationers, this “shadow” family sits across from their victims, and the camera focuses on the faces of the mothers in particular (both played by Lupita Nyong’o). Adelaide, handcuffed to the coffee table, sheds long, Get Out-worthy tears, but Red, her abductor, leans in, widens her eyes, and flutters her fingertips across her cheeks like a pair of spiders. “What are you people?” Adelaide’s husband (Winston Duke) gasps.
I have a theory, but I’ll save that for later in order to delay spoilers. Suffice it to say here that Us makes one thing immediately clear from the start: Get Out was no fluke in terms of craft. Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, editor Nicholas Monsour, and composer Michael Abels, Peele has once again constructed a movie experience that functions first and foremost on the level of sheer terror. From the drops of doom on the soundtrack to a POV camera that frequently puts us face to face with horror, Us turns identity politics into the stuff of nightmares.
The most frightening face is Nyong’o’s as Red, Adelaide’s shadow. She stares at Adelaide as if the other woman was a scientific specimen—then moves with a suddenness that’s both smooth and disjointed. Ballet features into the story (I won’t say how), and Red’s movements bring to mind a dancer whose limbs were once severely broken. She knows the steps, but has lost the elegance. As things turn increasingly violent, it’s interesting to note that Adelaide—demure and almost frail at the film’s beginning—gradually comes to adopt Red’s mannerisms: grunting, stumbling, making fearsome faces. It’s a bravura double turn on Nyong’o’s part, further proof that horror can be fertile ground for performance.
Get Out, as a horror entry, also had one foot firmly planted in social commentary. It was implicit in the movie’s setup, in which an African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s parents and encounters self-satisfied liberalism, alongside even greater evils. Us is a bit more coy on the commentary front. What gets literalized in Get Out works more as metaphor here. (OK, full spoilers ahead.)
To my mind, Us could be read as a prophetic wake-up call for consumptive, capitalist America. We eventually learn that Red and the other shadows were created in underground labs decades ago, designed by unnamed conspirators to control the shadows’ above-ground counterparts as puppets. When the experiment failed, the shadows were abandoned, left to survive far below the earth on nothing but the rabbits that had also been left behind. A prologue, set in 1986, reveals that Adelaide briefly encountered her shadow as a child while in a carnival’s hall of mirrors, a traumatizing incident that still haunts her. When Red, now grown, emerges alongside the other shadows, she’s both a figure of vengeance and a symbolic prophet. She believes that she can only claim the good life she missed out on by murdering the person who had been enjoying it in her place.
Note that everyone we see lives in affluence; there’s even an early trip to the beach with friends (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss, both very funny) during which the couples compare their cars, boats, and other “stuff.” Us suggests that such comforts almost always come at the cost of someone else—maybe not doppelgangers trapped in underground labs, but perhaps third-world miners risking their lives for the materials used to make our smartphones or sweatshop laborers cranking out our clothes in dangerous conditions. Even the rabbits come into play here, given that cosmetics companies have been known to use the animals for testing purposes. There’s a pointed irony, then, in the way Hands Across America plays a part in Red’s plans (I’ll leave that for you to discover). A phenomenon of 1986, the goodwill project was intended to raise money to fight poverty.
The term “prophet” comes to mind only because Us references a specific prophet a number of times: the Old Testament’s Jeremiah. Early on, a skeevy character is seen holding a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11, which is a pronouncement of God’s judgment on the nation of Judah for its idolatrous ways. The numbers “11:11” pop up repeatedly in Us; that’s right around the time of night when the shadow family makes their initial attack. What’s more, in the Bible, Jeremiah originally refuses his calling, claiming he doesn’t know how to speak. And Adelaide, we learn, went mute for some time after her childhood encounter with her shadow.
But wait, in this reading isn’t Red, not Adelaide, the prophet, shocking society into awareness of its sins? Here is where the movie’s title comes in. Us sees Red and Adelaide as a single figure—an “us” whose convergence brings about a cataclysmic reckoning. In a final twist, after Adelaide has brutally murdered Red and reunited with her own family, she has a clarifying memory: during that childhood encounter, the shadow kidnapped the “real” girl and switched places with her. In a supreme act of self-denial, she then suppressed this act in her memory and went on to live a prosperous life. And so Red became Adelaide, even as Adelaide—quiet young girl who unwisely walked into that hall of mirrors—grew up to become the vengeful Red. It’s not just a gotcha twist, but a brilliant comment on how affluence, when we bow down before it, engenders a complacency so insidious that we not only forget others, but even ourselves.