Julia Straub says that Us is a unique psychological horror that’s chilling social commentary and careful symbolism that can’t be duplicated.
In recent years, Jordan Peele has made a name for himself as a director within the horror genre through thought-provoking film releases. Peele’s creative genius soars in his second feature film, Us (2019), where he serves as writer and director. The story follows a family fighting against a set of murderous doppelgängers hellbent on terrorizing them. Peele’s acute attention to detail, careful symbolism, social commentary, and Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography blend for a chilling experience that can’t be duplicated.
Us begins on a boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California, in 1986, where a young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) wanders into a house of mirrors. Instead of her reflection, she finds her body double and returns to her family, traumatized for years by the encounter. Decades later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), along with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), return to the same beach house for a family vacation. Soon after their arrival, four scissor-wielding visitors in red jumpsuits invade the vacation home. The visitors turn out to be their doppelgangers and label themselves the Tethered. Adelaide’s double Red, the only Tethered who can speak, commands the doubles to assault the Wilsons, who must fight to survive the night.
Gioulakis' visually dynamic cinematography leaves a lasting mark, particularly with the luminescent lighting on young Adelaide in the house of mirrors, enhancing the horror in her widened eyes as the shot moves inward on her face. Coupled with eerie and memorable music by composer Michael Abels, the cinematography elevates the uncanny nature of the otherwise rigid and soulless imposters. One fighting dance sequence sent chills up my spine as the combination of ballet and violence over an instrumental of "Got 5 on It" by Luniz and Michael Marshall proved mesmerizing. The true nature of Adelaide and Red shines as their choreographed fighting syncs harmoniously with the edits of their younger selves, gracefully performing a dance routine. While much of the imagery involves a mirroring aspect, Peele chooses daylight over darkness in some scenes for greater impact. Horror films often rely on darkness to create a scary ambiance, but creating horror on a sunny beach in broad daylight requires mastery that adds ample terror to a scene.
The film features endless symbolism, especially with its mise en scene. The iconic weapon choices convey more to be found beyond surface-level observations. For instance, the Tethered’s gold shears, a tool meant to separate and destroy one thing by cutting off a part of the whole, or Zora’s golf club, the whitest weapon of all, or even Gabe’s baseball bat, a symbol of America’s pastime. Even the clothing offers different meanings to interpret, from the red jumpsuits resembling prison jumpsuits to Jason’s tuxedo shirt, a symbol of class in society. Every small detail in Us carries multiple meanings that help drive the film's themes and complexity forward.
Peele allows audiences to interpret their own understandings from Us. Red and Adelaide’s connection highlights one significant message of privilege in America. Despite being and looking the same, one gets to live a beautiful life above the surface while the other has to live in the dark underground with empty souls. The Tethered didn’t try and fail to get where they are. They were born into it. The duality throughout the film explores the realism of circumstance in our society. One person’s success is another person’s oppression. This notion effectively heightens every aspect of the film.
A single criticism concerns Red’s explanation of the Tethered’s origins. While it may appear critical to provide exposition, it only invites plot holes and numerous unanswered questions, which pulls our attention away from other details. Us is a cinematic spectacle that gets better with each viewing. It encompasses all the horror tropes we love, but Peele’s attention to detail and world-building make the film brilliant.
Us is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.