Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the Oscar winning Get Out has doubles everywhere. Doppelgangers are ganging up on an ordinary American family and in this hall of mirrors nothing is quite as it seems. Peele knows it’s a story as old as time, even on screen. With Us, his originality is not in the theme but in the telling. It could’ve been pure polemic. In truth it’s a superior, serpentine movie where every sound, frame and word matters.
As a young child, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) strays away from her family at a funfair and enters a mirror-room. Is the figure behind her a reflection or…? Many years later, now a wife and mother, Adelaide is heading for a holiday near the scene of the incident. Her goofy hubby (Winston Duke) doesn’t do subtle and isn’t getting it. Creeped out, is Adelaide’s horror happening again? Yep. As one of the kids says: “There’s a family on our drive…”
And so there is. Exactly like them, person for person. Each dressed in a red boiler suit and carrying the most snippety pair of scissors you’ve seen. Spooky silence gives way to gate-creakingly guttural cries as the doubles skitter about like the souped up zombies of 28 Days Later. But Peele is no imitator and he treads the knife-edge between horror, mystery and comedy unlike anyone else in cinema today.
Sure there’s horror and the bodies pile up. But the violence is mostly out of shot and never gory. It’s funny too, often at its scariest point. Not sending-up the genre but deftly, at one with Peele’s intelligent approach. So a family’s high-tech gadgetry takes their calls for help a touch too literally – as their shallow lifestyle comes back to bite them.
Peele deals in ordinary families. Adelaide’s brood is believably real; her hubby is doting and unseeing, embarrasses his kids like ‘fun’ dads do, and is initially emasculated by the situation. But the writer-director treats his audience with respect, lacing his film with quietly played visual clues. A man stands alone on a beach arms akimbo, blood dripping from his fingers like a tired and spooky scarecrow. It’s only an hour later that we realise what this means.
A down-and-out’s cardboard sign of ‘Jeremiah 11:11’, seen by the young Adelaide, reverberates through the movie. ‘I will bring evil on them…they shall not escape…’. As it’s a Bible verse in a scary movie, you can guess it’s not a happy one. But it did become a top Google search. Smartly, though, 11:11 crops up on digital clocks, number plates, clueing us to the double-trouble that undertows the movie.
Visually, Us drips with class. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) creates sinewy movement, a palette of light and dark, of heightened colours. And Michael Abel’s score is wonderfully effective, all thrumming strings and off-kilter rhythms; ill-served when Peele can’t resist the ‘boo-behind-you’ scares. But beautifully ripe when the horror unfolds, drawing you into the nightmare.
Credit to Lapita Nyong’o (Black Panther, 12 Years a Slave) who is outstanding as the two versions of herself. The fantastic vocalisation of the shadow-self is unnerving; her facial tics and body-movements believable. Respect too to Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) who conveys a brittle superficiality as the family’s friend and gets to demonstrate a darkly manic side.
For sure, it’s a female empowerment movie and a political skit on Trump’s America – yes, the ‘Us’ is the US of A. But Peele weaves these in so well, they don’t stick out. Air-punchingly good is Adelaide’s daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who turns the ‘can I drive?’ plea into a pedal-to-the-metal ride; it’s a bat-wielding coming-of-age.
Witty one liners sit alongside politico putdowns. “Who are you?” Adelaide asks the invaders. “We’re Americans”. Mexico, walls, it’s all there. But seamlessly done. It’s only Peele’s cleverness that gets you in the end, as the confused denouement fails to hit the right beats. Having made you think, you can’t help yourself: just how did they make those red boiler suits if they lived down there….?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers did it for McCarthyite America. Peele does it for now; for us. I’m glad he did.