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Film Review: Us

25 March 2019 | Daniel Pateman

Two years after the success of Get Out (2017) Jordan Peele proves he still has his finger on America’s pulse with Us: a darkly ambitious vision of a nation at war with itself. Weaving rich themes with horror movie inspirations, Us delivers its thought-provoking payload with humour, suspense, and head-scratching mystery.

Arriving in cinemas to glowing reviews and much media hyperbole, Us will please those who like their chills delivered with a heavy dose of subtext. Marrying influences like Wes Craven, George Romero and M. Night Shyamalan, Peele presents a carefully constructed tale that centres on an American family who come face-to-face with their scissor-wielding doppelgängers. Beginning in 1986 in Santa Cruz, a young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) wanders off from her parents to make a traumatising discovery at the funfair’s Hall of Mirrors. We fast-forward to the “Present Day”, where Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now married with kids Zora and Jason. Reluctantly returning to the beachfront of her childhood terror, her anxiety increases as the day’s discomforting occurrences pile up. Adelaide later confides to her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) the cause of her dread, when the power goes and a family appear in their driveway that look just like them.
Us is an ambiguous film loaded with meanings, striking imagery and symbolism, with its structuring motif that of the uncanny double. Clocks are seen at “11:11”, and cardboard signs held by the homeless imitate this, alluding to a verse in the bible prophesying God’s merciless destruction. The film’s doppelgängers, or “The Tethered” as Peele dubs them, appear as the dark inversion of civilization, vocally stunted and physically brusque. Adelaide’s dark half Red bitterly recounts how they’ve suffered every deprivation in comparison to the Wilson’s every privilege. However, as the audience is drip-fed backstory via flashback, these eerie figures become less and less alien. They come to represent a marginalised American underclass; perhaps the same people who saw a saviour in Donald Trump. The preface teasingly states that thousands of miles of abandoned tunnels exist under the United States, and it is here that the “Tethered” exist, living out a miserable facsimile of human existence.

Within the plots overarching convolutions the film provides an effective blend of horror and comedy. Winston Duke brings a personable warmth as Gabe, the affable husband and father who fails to comprehend the fantastic circumstances of their situation. When his family are confronted by their sinister doubles, he tries placating them with material possessions like his new boat, to which his daughter scornfully comments that “nobody wants your boat”; his pragmatic reactions to an incredible scenario making these scenes all the more unnerving. That tone of mockish, Scream-like humour continues later at the home of bickering couple Kitty (Elizabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker). As they and their twin daughters are attacked by their own doubles, a wounded Kitty croaks to the home’s digital assistant to “call the police”. True to technological form, NWA’s Fuck Tha Police blasts out of the speakers instead. Meanwhile, Nyong’o is beguiling in a literally multi-faceted role; playing an ambiguous blend of mother, victim and avenging angel.
The film’s final revelation necessitates a certain narrative obscurity and emotional distance, with a reluctance to align the audience with one particular character, effectively erasing the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’, hero and villain. As a result, Us is more spookily cerebral than viscerally affecting. But what it lacks in shocks it makes up for with a visually stunning, socially potent and entertaining dissection of contemporary America.

Us is in cinema across the UK now. 

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