Us (dir. Jordan Peele, 2019) – A family’s beach vacation turns into a living nightmare as they come to face their violent doppelgängers.
Following Get Out, Jordan Peele presents another fiercely intelligent and thoughtful sophomore work, though its ambitious narrative fails to bear the weight of scrutiny.
Review (Warning: Spoilers)
Once upon a time, there lived a happy family, each with suffering shadows whom they knew nothing about. Then came the day when their doppelgängers broke their silence and rose above ground, demanding to take their places.
As a home invasion thriller, Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror effort Us succeeds as an original masterwork of sustained tension. The horrifying premise puts an original spin on the home invasion trope, revealing The Strangers to be more than familiar faces.
A brilliant cast make the uncanny duplicates grotesque through subtle actions and crooked smiles. Michael Abels’ score with its chilling vocalisations work well to go along. But amongst its many technical accomplishments, what genuinely stirs interest is the meaning that Us urges its audience to infer.
The horror-fantasy introduces a world of unequals, interpreting the have and the have-nots in literal terms. Where Adelaide led a life of comfort, her doppelgänger Red endured years of hunger and pain. It is a heavy-handed albeit effective metaphor. Suggesting that one’s comfort comes at a cost to another, Peele’s portrait of duality presents economic inequality in striking imagery.
Smiling faces at the beach amusement park contrast with their vacant doubles, housed in abandoned prison-like tunnels. Below ground where the Tethered were bred, there is nothing beyond the bare essentials. They grasp onto thin air, their hands empty and gestures meaningless. They may look like us and think like us, but do not live like us.
Deeper implications come with the final twist, as to the true identities of Red and Adelaide, delving into thought-provoking questions of personal identity and human nature. How do we truly begin to understand who we are? What does it mean to be us?
Similar sci-fi plots have taken on this very motif. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers for instance posits empathy as the answer. While the duplicates retain their original’s memories, it is their absence of emotions that is disturbing to watch. The doppelgängers are forced to take a look at their other selves, discovering just how uncannily alike yet dissimilar they were.
Us posits that it is the upbringing that make us, us. The Wilsons are forced to confront what they could have been, had circumstances just turn out different. Will they then live with the cards they were dealt, or know to escape the poverty line?
The story goes further to critique what we do with the awareness of privilege; even when Adelaide’s Tethered manages to change her fate, she forgets about the world below, where she came from, until its violence climbs above.
In this, Us presents a stunningly layered social commentary. If only it had entrusted its audience to their own imagination. Upon explanation, many of the Wilsons’ actions and the mechanics of how the Tethered works fail to withstand scrutiny. Such logic gaps mount with each revelation and unnecessarily extensive scenes of exposition.
The film necessitates that we accept the magic that governs its world, and despite its irksome absurdity, we do. We would be damned if we let these narrative flaws discount the important message that comes through this engagingly introspective and highly ambitious story.