Self. What does it really mean to know thyself, and to be yourself? Who’s the real you and who’s the facade? Or are we all victims of some form of psychosis, burying our true selves within the mind? And what have we ignored to keep up the facade? These are the themes at the heart of Us, Jordan Peele’s sophomore follow up to the 2017 blockbuster Get Out. At times a slasher film, but always a psychological horror, Peele combines two of the most prominent horror subgenres to craft a mean, menacing slice of introspective entertainment sure to inspire cosplays, memes, several rewatches, and a multitude of fan theories. Simply put, Us succeeds by delivering on the visceral carnage candy that’s to be expected of the genre, while raising enough questions to elevate the film above a typical gore fest. Unfortunately, those questions are hampered by muddy storytelling that don’t provide the thrilling cathartic release that everyone praised Peele for after Get Out.
The story follows Adelaide Wilson (Lupito Nyong’o) as she and her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) plan a family getaway for themselves and their two children. It happens to be the same location that Adelaide visited with her parents when she was a child – where she wandered off into a house of mirrors, discovering a girl that was not her reflection and looked exactly like her in every way. Since that moment, Adelaide has tried to suppress the memory anyway she can. Her parents made her take up ballet, and while she was good at it, it does nothing to cure her trauma. As an adult, Adelaide is constantly on edge, protective of her son and daughter, and unwilling to enjoy herself in the slightest during this trip. So why would she allow her family to return to this location? Who the hell knows.
Gabe eventually gets Adelaide to agree to take the family to a nearby beach. Gabe tries his best to make sure his family has a good time, while Adelaide can barely carry on a conversation with their friends Kitty and Tyler (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker). Meanwhile, their son Jason (Evan Alex) wanders off before discovering a strange man dressed in red and covered in blood. The boy is found before anyone else discovers this man, but this incident nearly sends Adelaide off the deep end, punctuated by Gabe not taking her anxiety seriously. By the time night falls, however, there’s a strange family of doppelgangers waiting for the Wilsons in the driveway, and Adelaide’s worst fears are finally realized.
From here, the film turns into a true horror show, bringing out or revealing the worst in our heroes, society, and the strange creatures that call themselves the tethered. Such a strange concept would be DOA if not for a steady hand behind the camera, but Peele has the vision to capture the mood and atmosphere necessary to engross the audience. His framing in particular is fantastic, photographing his actors in methods similar to a graphic novel. There’s one shot in particular of Adelaide on an escalator that’s instantly iconic. However, at times his framing is almost too good. He shows us too much information in key scenes, where some of the scariest scenes in history rely in what the camera ISN’T showing us as much as what’s in frame.
Overall, the film is more tense than scary, which isn’t a death sentence but the film doesn’t quite capture our nightmarish imagination. There’s also an issue with pace, where some scenes are enjoyably deliberate while others drag. Peele is relying heavily on long takes and tracking shots, and they’re highly effective when used well. At other times, it can be a bit clumsy where you’re consciously aware of what the camera is doing and wandering why he didn’t just cut to the next frame. Some scenes could’ve moved at a brisk pace, allowing the longer scenes to feel more unique and impactful.
The acting throughout is strong, especially since most of the cast are playing multiple roles, Nyong’o being the clear standout. Moss and Heindecker are able to leave an impression despite having very limited screentime. Winston Duke is entertaining as comic relief, but his chemistry with Nyong’o is mostly lacking. They seem to have a greater rapport as themselves on the press tour than they do in the actual film. However, the kids, Jason and Zora (Shahadi Wright), are cast well. Their performances always feel authentic and they’re never over the top in the ways they bicker, misbehave, or react to their horrifying dilemma.
I believe most will find Us to be a solidly acted, superbly shot piece of horror. Where many will disagree are the themes and how those themes are communicated in the story. The film tackles a multitude of ideas, including the shadow self, the homeless, inequality, and revenge. These themes aren’t resolved in a way that I found instantly enjoyable or cathartic. Perhaps the film needs multiple viewings to truly appreciate, but as it stands the finale provides two conflicting options for the audience to root for, as the lines are blurred between who’s really in the right. Perhaps this is all intentional and the film is just a warning for what can and will go wrong.
The film’s lasting message can be interpreted in many ways, but one possible answer is to not just watch yourself, like the tagline says, but to watch what you’ve taken for granted and what (or who) has been sacrificed to make your life possible. Adelaide made that mistake, and perhaps she’s undeserving of what her life has become. The movie certainly seems to feel that way, but will we as the audience feel the same when we look in the mirror?