Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures
By Monica Castillo
The anticipation for Jordan Peele’s Us has been steadily building since the project was announced last year. Or, more accurately, it’s been there since Peele took home a screenwriting Oscar for his critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and hotly debated directorial debut, Get Out. After Friday night’s (March 8) frenzied premiere of Us at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, we can confirm that the horror flick lives up to the hype. Where the most terrifying parts of Get Out were steeped in modern day issues surrounding race in America, Peele’s second take at big-screen screams is a similarly nuanced story that peels back the layers of everyday horrors — taking the home invasion trope and turning it upside down to ask, “What if we’re the monsters of our own story?”
The film follows the Wilsons, a typical American family, on their less-than-idyllic vacation trip to Santa Cruz. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) isn’t a fan of the beach, but after some playful coaxing from her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), she relents. They take their kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), to meet with another family of four, the Tylers. Their day trip incidentally sets off a series of frightening events that, much like Get Out, will most likely set off alarm bells.
If you want to go into the movie unspoiled, then you may want to pause here.
The basic premise of the evil in the film is that we are our own worst enemy. In Peele’s twisted vision, that manifests in warped copies of the Wilsons. They show up one night to confront their picture-perfect middle-class doppelgängers, jealous of the privileged lives they’ve enjoyed while their less fortunate copies were kept underground in terrible conditions. The Wilsons are understandably unnerved by this group of outsiders — and even more so when they realize that the evil they fear looks exactly like them.
This, according to Peele, is a metaphor for America. “We’re in a time where we fear the other, whether it’s the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us and take our jobs, or the faction we don’t live near, who voted a different way than us,” he said during a post-premiere Q&A. “We’re all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil, it’s us.”
Us, in many ways, is also a love letter to horror. The Wilsons join a long line of twins and doubles in horror movies like The Shining, Dead Ringers, and Body Double. (In fact, similar to Get Out, there are many references to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining throughout, and it was even one of the films Peele asked the cast to watch before production commenced.) For actors, this kind of character work is always a thrilling challenge. But with the help of a director and storyteller like Peele — one who nurtures these kinds of horror tropes and devices, filtering them through his own worldview — it’s also the chance to take on a role that has more than one meaning.
The entire cast is stupendous, but Nyong’o is the star of the movie with an all-consuming performance as both the Wilson matriarch and her deranged other half, known as Red. Adelaide bears the unseen scars of childhood trauma; as a young girl, she wandered off from her parents along the Santa Cruz boardwalk and found herself face to face with a creepily silent little girl who looked just like her. So her apprehension toward a nice day at the beach with her family is warranted. And Nyong’o throws herself into the dark madness of her doppelgänger, a woman with a voice hoarse from disuse, and like Adelaide, leads her family during the course of the movie.
Where Adelaide is flighty and shaken by the events, her doppelgänger moves with freakishly smooth intention, the movie’s trademark golden scissors pointed down as both hands grasp tightly on the now-deadly weapon. Through both careful editing and staging, Peele creates the illusion that the original family members are facing off against their troubled selves, and Nyong’o has some of the tensest confrontations as Adelaide’s doppelgänger is the only one who can talk and tell her family’s sad side of the story. This setup also allows Nyong’o to become a bit of an action star, staging a fight between her two characters that plays more like a dance, with one side acting more composed and the other wildly thrashing to survive.
For his part, Duke sheds the macho bravado of his breakout role in Black Panther for a persona that’s goofier, not quite as observant to all the weird coincidences leading up to the attack but still fiercely protective of his family when it comes time for action. While Nyong’o’s performance is perhaps the most eye-catching, Duke’s portrayal is also demanding, physically and mentally. As his evil double, Duke puts on a stone-faced furrowed brow, his shoulders are hunched until it’s time to unleash his brute strength.
In between the two parents — of both the original family and their unhinged doppelgängers — are the kids. Wright Joseph takes on a confident cool girl attitude as eldest Zora, someone who’s always mildly annoyed by her little brother and is always embarrassed by her dad’s corny jokes. Her doppelgänger has a weird good-girl vibe to her. Her hair is straightened and she’s obedient to her mother’s every command. With a Wolfman mask as a security blanket, Jason is the quieter child of the two. Where Zora may resort to her ability to outrun her doppelgänger, Jason outsmarts his evil, fire-happy double within the rules of their own existence.
“What are you people?” Adelaide asks halfway through the film. Her double replies with a menacing smile, “We’re Americans.”
The true meaning behind these doppelgängers will likely be the subject of debate when the movie comes out later this month. Are they a metaphor for America? For a classist society? For the countless unspeakable horrors buried deep in our nation’s soil? Or is their origin not as important as the film’s final, satisfying twist?
Chances are the film’s mythology won’t be what stays with you in the hours, days, and months after seeing Us. Instead, you’ll remember the way Nyong’o moves, the way her face contorts into a singular sinister grimace, the way her tears fall — and the way she lets the mayhem totally consume her, frame by frame.