There are no simple answers in ‘Us,’ and that’s what makes it great
It’s something of a running joke that people do not know which genre Jordan Peele’s films fall under. Get Out was a horror movie, but Peele himself classified it as a “social thriller.” The film was terrifying, yet it was nominated for the Musical/Comedy category at the Golden Globes. As the disagreement grew, Peele chimed in with a facetious answer that may have contained the most truth of all.
The spirited nature of this debate is ironic, because horror and comedy are fundamentally two sides of the same coin. In the simplest terms, horror and comedy are both founded on the buildup and release of tension by way of subverting audience expectations. A character runs down an empty street and slips on a banana peel; we laugh. A character runs down an empty street and a murderer pops out of nowhere; we scream. These scenes feel completely different, but they are counterparts. We did not expect the banana peel, nor did we expect the murderer.
What Peele proved with Get Out was that these two genres could coexist to tell a cohesive story. His latest, Us, operates in very much the same zone, drifting between horror and humor and sci-fi. The duality between contrasting, symbiotic values is literalized: the idyllic American family in Us, the Wilsons, is terrorized by a family of doppelgängers that look like ghastly versions of themselves.
Us, like its predecessor, is an entirely original piece of storytelling, and the mechanics of how and why these doppelgängers appear are wildly inventive. The “Tethered,” as they describe themselves, are each dressed in red jumpsuits, carry a pair of golden scissors, and are bent on killing the Wilsons. The dual roles for each of the main actors are carried out effectively; they really feel like distinct characters, and Lupita Nyong’o in particular delivers an astonishing double performance. (It’s early, but it’s hard to see any other performance this year surpassing what she accomplishes in this film.) There’s not much else you need to know about the plot without dipping into spoiler territory.
Us is a tremendous visual step forward for Peele. It’s a lusciously shot film, and the images are packed with metaphorical resonance. There are multiple shots and sequences that push Peele into virtuosic territory, including an aerial view of the Wilsons’ long shadows reflected on the sunny Santa Cruz beach, a disturbing single take of a character applying lipstick in a mirror, and a sweeping ballet sequence that serves as visual cover for a pretty direct dose of exposition near the end of the film. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who also provided the cinematography for 2014’s It Follows, has a penchant for grounding the terrifying in the real world, and his style gels with Peele’s thematic intentions.
The film contains jarring images, like the look of horror on Adelaide’s face when she first encounters her doppelgänger, as well as more playful sequences that display Peele’s visual acuity, such as a gleefully violent doppelgänger showdown set to The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and NWA’s “Fuck tha Police.”
The highlight is a shot on the surface of a glass tabletop in the Wilsons’ living room, mirror images of Wilson family matriarch Adelaide (Nyong’o) reflected in the table and split by its cracking glass, her demonic counterpart Red reflected in the frame as well. It’s the moment in Us in which our expectations about the direction of the film begin to shatter. From this moment forward Peele sustains a dramatic tension all the way until the film’s shocking conclusion.
As technically gifted a filmmaker as Peele is, though, the dominant question on audiences’ and critics’ minds about Us is rooted in the metaphorical significance of its plot: what does it all mean? This is a compliment to the cultural esteem granted to Peele after just one film. (It also diminishes the attention paid to his camerawork and structural ingenuity, but I digress.) Get Out was a phenomenon in part because it was a tight, exhilarating thriller, but mostly because it offered up an insightful commentary about the psychology of American racism. The visual analogy of the Sunken Place as a physical manifestation of racial oppression was elegant and clear, and thus instantly canonized.
Us, in this regard, is a complete departure from Get Out. Its terror contains metaphorical significance abound, and it imagines another physical realm as social allegory, but there is no definitive answer as to what it all adds up to. It’s been disappointing to see critics respond to Us as if it should do the same thing as Get Out before it. Consider the opening line of the review in the Chicago Tribune in which critic Michael Phillips says, “It’s an unusual sort of letdown when the story doesn’t quite hang together and “deliver” the way Peele managed with his 2017 debut feature, “Get Out.”” Or look at this excerpt of Adam Nayman’s review of Us for The Ringer, in which he says the film “feels very much like the work of a filmmaker Trying to Have an Idea, or, more specifically, trying to have an idea as good as his last one.”
These critiques, and many others like them, rest on the same false premise: that Us is unsatisfying because it does not conjure an elegant metaphor for some social ill in the way that Get Out so effectively did. It’s unfair, though, to try and compare Us to one of the greatest films ever made rather than consider it on its own terms. Unlike Get Out, Us does not intend to point a finger at something and say, “the problem is that.” Instead, the film’s target is of ire is our collective and individual failure to reflect on our own complicity in the evils beneath the surface. It’s an amorphous concept that’s much harder to use as a means of virtue-signaling on Twitter.
And yet, curiously, the critical consensus has also been echoing the idea that the metaphor in Us is just way too obvious. Critics are latching onto a key line in the film that occurs during the Wilsons’ initial encounter with the doppelgängers, in which the family asks them what, exactly, the morose monstrosities are. “We’re Americans,” Red replies in a raspy, pained whisper. This, the critical mass has declared, is Peele tipping his hand. We understand this is an allegory for America and the enemy that is, obviously, ourselves. Do we really need it spelled out?
There’s an irony to this analysis, because beyond the consensus that “Us is really about America and the enemy within,” there is no unified theory of what that actually means. There are critiques declaring the film’s thesis to be about the wealth gap, or racial inequities, or political stratification. This is, in fact, what Peele was going for with the film. He has described Us as a Rorschach test, a film less less about what it says about America than what our response to the film says about ourselves. “It really is about looking within,” he told The Ringer.
The brilliance of the film is that it doesn’t just explore the need to look within, but the terror that actively ignoring the evils inherent in our identities will reap. We are a people operating with a fractured coexistence between body and soul, and yet carry on as if nothing is wrong. The key line in the film is not the on-the-nose “We’re Americans”; it is Adelaide’s reassurance to her son in the midst of the terror they are facing: “Everything is going to be like it was before.”
In this way Us accomplishes something much different, and perhaps more difficult, than Get Out: implicating the audience in America’s social ills without giving them an obvious “other” to whom they can deflect. Holding hands and singing Kumbaya won’t make our issues go away if we don’t examine our own role in the creation and perpetuation of those issues. Us makes a compelling case that things won’t change just because we’ve championed a film like Get Out.
That’s not a slight to Get Out; it just means Us is great for reasons that are harder to pin down. It is horror and comedy, but not one or the other; it has ideas but no answers. Honestly, Peele’s joke of a response about Get Out’s genre might be appropriate for Us as well. Above all else, Peele’s essential greatness stems from his films’ ability to speak the truth.
Us: 4 stars