Jordan Peele has not only solidified himself as the modern master of horror with his second effort, but also changes our expectations for the genre by deftly blending humor and social satire into his stories. Building on the momentum from his strong first effort, Get Out, Peele solidifies himself as a director who we all should be subscribing to until he leads us astray. He makes movies that are the smartest kid in your class – and not the one who wear Berets or quotes Marxist history to impress girls at Cambridge bars. He carries challenging and polarizing topics with levity and ease into complex and intense stories. Without being heavy-handed and within the constraints of this fun and twisting plot, Us delivers on these principles and takes Peele to another level.
We are introduced to the Wilson family who are spending their vacation at the Santa Cruz boardwalk. We quickly learn that Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o, is haunted by a past event. This event is shown in the first scene in the movie where as a child she runs away from her parents and interacts with an exact replica of herself. The family is then hunted by these very same “tethered” shadows. Nyong’o’s uneasiness and tension early in the movie is played perfectly to the point where I found myself uncomfortable even in the lighter moments in these early scenes. Even with her husband Gabe, played by Winston Duke, bringing the audience to tears with his antics, you still feel her underlying and growing anxiety throughout. She puts on an amazing performance, unraveling emotionally right before our eyes as herself and carrying the tethered as their mastermind from her shadow performance. It is one of the strongest performances in a movie I have seen in the last few years, and she should surely be in discussions for a bevy of awards next season.
Next, we meet the family’s tethered twins who are similar, but more extreme in the flaws and faults of their human counterparts. Red, Adelaide’s tethered shadow, explains their hatred for mankind and that it is their time to exact revenge on the world. From there, the movie shifts into a classic horror movie, a roller coaster ride of fear and survival across the property. The music and sound drive these frightening elements as we fly around corners and are launched around the screen uncomfortably, constantly searching for our attackers on the wide-screen.
From here, the scope of the movie expands entirely. Our focus shifts from not only the Wilson family, but to their close friends and the rest of the local area. We realize that this horror not only exists for our main characters, but that this is a larger scale uprising. Peele begins to fully blend in his social satire here, as we learn there is a whole society of tethered living in this beautiful California city’s underbelly. These tethered never have had the opportunity because of their circumstance to rise from the underground and enjoy the everyday delights of the sunshine and blue sky. They are tethered to this life of hell and learn to aspire for more as they are exposed to the beauties of everyday life for those who are privileged to experience it.
We learn that one of these tethered grows to have enough of these circumstances and bands together their people to rise against those on the surface. They are tired of living within the confines of a sealed hallway with a shallow ceiling and want to experience the world for all that it is. Peele carries this heavy commentary on the inequality of life and the endless cycle of being tethered to your circumstance within the plot of the movie without throwing it in your face. Us allows you to watch the movie for what it is, a zombie apocalypse of sorts, or dig deeper and find layers of depth and intrigue throughout.
Peele also does a masterful job hinting at the movie’s largest twist without ever once showing his hand. On your walk home from the movie, you cycle through different scenes in the movie, picking up little pieces here and there to put the puzzle together. We find out that these tethered were not born and bred to despise and to resent humanity, but learned to do so. It is clear that spending time in this type of environment, whether predisposed to it or not, will drive you to anger and to strive for revenge against those who do not realize what they have. We are led to believe that the tethered would not be this way, if they were provided with the same securities and pleasures as those on the surface. If the tables were turned, Peele leads us to believe that we should expect both parties, the tethered and free, to act as the other party has acted.
I believe that the funniest people on earth are often the smartest. They have the tools to quickly take in information, contextualize it, and spin it in a way that is easily understandable and smart for their audience. This balance of spinning challenging topics into easily digestible and fun chunks of information is what makes comedy so special. It is clear that Jordan Peele has this ability and has grown to adapt it to his true love with horror. I was never much of a horror fan growing up, not only because I was scaredy-cat, but also because I felt like they generally were not very well constructed movies. They seemed obvious and straightforward. Peele has changed my expectations and taken the genre to another level with Us. I believe he could do the same for any genre that he chooses. His performance here is masterful and leaves me very excited for any and everything that he has on the horizon moving forward. Welcome to Jordan Peele’s moment, let’s all be happy to be here.