Jordan Peele’s Us opens with a flashback to 1986. A young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry), is on an idyllic Santa Cruz beach vacation with her family. She wanders off alone and finds something unexpected in an abandoned hall of mirrors: a separate, sinister version of herself. Flash forward to present day: adult Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to the beach with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke of Black Panther fame) and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Revisiting the scene of her childhood trauma at her husband’s insistence has Adelaide understandably on edge, and it’s not long before things go wrong.
That evening, after being tempted toward the same hall of mirrors from his mother’s childhood, Jason sees four silhouetted figures standing in their beach house driveway. The twisted version of childhood Adelaide has grown up and returned with violent intentions, alongside evil versions of her family members.
“Us is a horror movie,” writer-director Jordan Peele (Get Out, Key and Peele) tweeted earlier this week. The highly-anticipated film, Peele’s second filmmaking venture, proposes that the scariest monster isn’t the one hiding under the bed, it’s one we can’t escape from—ourselves. The look-alikes aren’t limited to the central black family, which means their race is not what makes them targets, unlike Get Out, where the physical and psychological violence hinged on race and racism.
I didn’t think Peele’s directorial debut was that scary, in the conventional sense of the horror genre. That’s not to say Get Out isn’t a good movie. It’s fascinating. The premise just didn’t scare me the way I would expect a horror movie to do—where the paranormal reigns and I can’t sleep afterward. Get Out, once the puzzle pieces are put together, is rooted in something comprehensible: racism and the literal commodification of black bodies.After Get Out was nominated in the “Musical or Comedy” category at the Golden Globes, Peele tweeted, “Get Out is a documentary.” People who look and think like the Armitages exist.
With Us, no one can make the same genre mistake. The red-clad figures terrorizing the Wilson family are certainly not something comprehensible from the world the audience watches from. Us uses horror tropes like home-invasion, experimentation, and the paranormal to make sure there’s no doubt that this piece fits into the genre it aspires to. The Tethered, as Peele calls them, are distinctly not-human in their stilted movements. Only Red, Adelaide’s counterpart, is capable of speech. Nyong’o’s dictation and tone become otherworldly for the second character; Red speaks with a rasp that sounds as if someone has their hands wrapped around her throat.
While the animalistic doubles try to kill her family, Adelaide must follow her maternal mandate and keep them safe. Jason’s double Pluto shows us what Jason could become if he lost himself behind the plastic monkey mask he carries. Winston Duke as Gabe is challenged to serve as the comic relief in frightening circumstances, highlighting the actor’s flexibility. After Us, he will be known for more than just his Black Panther performance.
The Tethereds’ origin and their exact purpose are purposefully unclear at the outset. The intrigue around their identity lends them an ominous power. Adelaide becomes Red, calling out the red apparel; Gabe becomes Abraham, of biblical importance; Zora becomes Umbrae, the darkest part of a shadow; and Jason becomes Pluto, the Roman god of the underworld. As I expect from Peele, small details in Us, from the names for the Tethered to the references to Jaws and “Thriller,” are carefully chosen for their thematic implications.
The doppelgängers in Us are certainly more mysterious, more unspeakable, than Get Out’s recognizable villains. The mystery is boosted by the aesthetics—the sunny drive to the beach, caged white rabbits, high arched ceilings, orange flames bursting behind Pluto, and red blood splattered on Adelaide’s light-colored outfit. Brightness and color are disruptive, powerful, and dizzying; a setting that should be cheery and clear becomes deceptive and layered. Peele doesn’t supply gore for the shock factor. Much of the violence happens off screen so that the viewer, tensed in anticipation, is left to the depths of their imagination.
Much like with Get Out, Peele wants Us to make you think. It becomes increasingly clear that, more than simple look-alikes, the Tethered are the Wilson’s hostile doubles. This doubling isn’t as simple as Jekyll and Hyde however. It’s more subtle than that. It’s closer to the sense of Bertha Mason acting out Jane Eyre’s rage, of Peter Pan’s troublesome run-away shadow, or of the two blades of a pair of scissors: the Tethered and their human counterparts are connected. Red invades Adelaide’s beach vacation to bring out something dark that lives inside her. The Tethered pursue their human counterparts in an attempt at either equality or unity, having crossed from their dark world—think Upside Down—to our own. They are undoubtedly interested in power. Those who dwell above have too much, perhaps without having earned it, and the Tethered have come to take control.
To follow up the massive success of Get Out, Peele broadens his canvas rather than totally shifting his focus. Class and race are salient concerns once again. The question of identity and place within a social structure takes a further, nightmarish twist. When Adelaide asks Red who the doubles are, she rasps out that they’re “Americans.” This line suggests that we should take the title to mean not only “us,” but “U.S.”
Young Adelaide was beckoned to the funhouse by a specific message: “Find yourself.” After watching Us, you might not want to take up that challenge. Peele may not connect the dots closely enough to satisfy every viewer. The doubles are a far-reaching and complex metaphor that falls closer than anticipated to the overtly political Get Out. You’ll ponder his message long after leaving the theater.
Us is ultimately Peele’s attempt to bridge the gap between the terrifying and the intellectual. His new film provides more questions than answers—the dilemma of American inequality and fear of the other are not easily resolved. Peele succeeds at making your mind race a million miles a minute. Us is ambitious, and I’ll be waiting to see how Peele’s next project pushes boundaries of genre and metaphor even further.