A typical horror movie is usually made purely for entertainment and shock factor. Jordan Peele’s “Us” sets itself apart by being more than just a murder-fest, making him a new force to be reckoned with within the genre.
Jordan Peele’s “Us” uses the classic horror movie format to explore themes, such as duality of man and the “American Dream.” Through visual Easter eggs placed by Peele and stellar performances by the actors, Peele’s sophomore film leaves movie-goers scared and contemplative as they exit the theatre.
“Us” begins with a young girl named Adelaide, who wanders off from her family on the Santa Cruz boardwalk. As an ominous storm roles in towards the shore, she feels compelled to walk into a mirror house, with a large sign that says “Find Yourself” on the front. Within the mirror house, she finds a reflection that is not quite right. To her horror, she realizes that the figure is not a reflection, but a person identical to herself.
Flashing forward, Adelaide, her husband, and her two kids are on vacation in Santa Cruz, and she begins to feel uneasy. After going back to their vacation home from the boardwalk, the family notices four people standing outside their home. To their horror, the intruders break into the home, where they are revealed to be doppelgangers of the family. Red, Adelaide’s doppelganger, or “tether,” explains that they are the result of an abandoned government cloning project, stuck sharing a soul with their above-ground counterparts. They now seek revenge, and to take their spot in the above-ground world.
Despite gaining fame through comedy, Peele has proven himself to be a skilled storyteller. With outstanding reviews from “Get Out,” his first film, he decided to lean heavier into the horror genre for this film. While still gruesome enough for slasher-loving audiences, the film explores interesting themes and stays heavily rooted within them.
Every small detail Peele included tied into the plot perfectly. The primary weapon used, scissors, consists of two identical parts joined together by a single screw, a perfect metaphor for how the characters and their tethers are identical, and share one soul. Even clothing, such as Jason’s “Jaws” shirt, alludes to the theme of a terror lurking from below.
When Peele debuted his directing career, he immediately tackled the prominent issue of a white-washed horror genre. While Hollywood has had troubles with diversity for many years, horror was deemed the number one culprit by many. Most characters are portrayed by white actors and the non-white, usually singular, minor character is killed off fairly early.
Peele’s debut featured a black man as the lead role, changing the typical dynamic. He continued this theme with “Us,” having a black family at the center of the conflict. According to Peele, he plans to continue casting actors of color as leads, saying he’s “seen that film before,” in reference to a white-actor-led film.
This comment sparked some negative reactions online, claiming Peele to be a racist. However, many other directors have stated or practiced prejudices against black people and other minorities for years with little to no criticism. I believe Peele’s intent is to open doors for minority actors, a far nobler feat than shutting the door in their faces once more.
Lupita Nyong’o, who played both Adelaide and Red, gave a stellar performance of two highly contrasting characters. Red is portrayed as cold, calculated, and merciless. Her movements seem almost inhuman, exactly what you might expect from a soulless being. Nyong’o altered her voice drastically, creating a low, croaky sound that pierced the heart.
Nyong’o used a larynx disorder, called spasmodic dysphonia, along with personal vocal injuries as the inspiration behind the voice of Red. However, she received criticism for “demonizing” the disorder by associating it with the evil character. Sadly, disorders are used frequently in the horror genre to drive fear, which in turn can spread misinformation or vilify the people who live with the conditions portrayed.
Nyong’o has since apologized, “I crafted Red with love and care. As much as it [was] in a genre-specific world, I really wanted to ground her in something that felt real. For all that, I say sorry to anyone that I may have offended.”
Spoiler alert: the ending reveals that the opening scene was more than just an encounter between Adelaide and Red. An extended flashback shows that the original tether kidnapped Adelaide, handcuffed her to a bed in the underground tunnels, and took her place in the aboveground world.
Knowing this, I left the theatre with a sense of unease. The previously clean-cut good guy and villain images immediately became skewed. The character I had been rooting for was now the indirect cause of the conflict, and I developed slight sympathies for the girl who was stolen away.
By completely obliterating the clean-cut, good vs. evil dynamic at the closing of the film, the audience is left with little time to process the twist, meaning they carry their reactions with them out of the theatre. Carrying on, it’s hard to not to see the layers of good, bad, and questionable attributes within yourself and the people around you.
While “Us” has a different tone than other movies within the horror genre, I believe Peele has once again delivered a well-crafted film that acts as more than pure entertainment. The thought-provoking, chilling film is a must-see for those who appreciate Easter eggs, horror, a well-developed, thought-provoking theme.