The words “Let’s talk about us” may not bode well for whoever they’re spoken to, depending on their source and the context in which they’re said. If uttered by a significant other over the dinner table, they may herald both heartbreak and a literal break from contact. If spoken by the president of Us Weekly at a shareholders’ meeting, they may indicate that profits are spiraling down the potty and everyone should start calling dibs on stationary supplies before the IRS rolls in. If said by anybody who’s seen Jordan Peele’s new film Us, they may lead to either an ardent discussion about how amazing it is or a no-holds-barred fistfight because one of the parties involved thought it was stupid.
Case in point – I saw Us with two friends. One thought it was amazing. The other thought it was stupid. In a repeat of our shared viewing of The Last Jedi, it fell upon me to stand between them and suffer a slew of lacerations that my grandma isn’t really buying were induced by a stray cat.
For my part, I thoroughly enjoyed Us, though not quite as much as Peele’s 2017 inaugural horror Get Out. Whereas Get Out presented a more straightforward, character-driven story that only broke from reality towards the third act, Us veers immediately into science fiction territory and fully embraces its identity as something intended to traumatize you. Apparently, Get Out’s blend of light horror and satire left some people confused as to what it was they were seeing, a reaction that compelled Peele to go with something more tonally conventional for his sophomore outing – which apparently involved splicing horror and quasi-sci-fi. If he could have foreseen the confusion that would be wrought by a premise involving sewer-dwelling doppelgängers rising up to slaughter their counterparts and then join hands in a human chain across America, he may have just shot a Key and Peele reunion instead.
Anyway, Us opens with a title card that helpfully informs, well, us, that there are thousands of miles of tunnels crisscrossed under the contiguous United States, many of which serve no known purpose. “That will probably be important,” we say, because we’re smart viewers and we have an eye for those sorts of background details, yes we do. From there, we’re served a series of shots involving of a wall of caged white rabbits, a television commercial advertising the famous 1986 Hands Across America fundraiser, a sweeping aerial pan over a forest that invokes memories of The Shining, and a spoopy funhouse mirror sequence where child Lupita Nyong’o comes face-to-face with a malicious-looking doppelgänger. That’s all before we are formally introduced to the present-day Wilson family, whose holiday to their Santa Cruz beach house is sullied by a violent attack perpetrated by more evil, red jumpsuit-clad doppelgängers – one of whom is the same mysterious double from that earlier funhouse sequence, now all grown up and endowed with a voice that’s suspiciously similar to Grampa Simpson’s. “Tunnels, rabbits, 80’s charity benefits, beach houses, and doppelgängers?” we say aloud, to the consternation of everyone else in the theater. “What fun! I do hope this all ties together in a coherent fashion…”
Because writing a thematic interpretation of everything that Us is packing would be tantamount to penning a seventy-five-page master’s thesis, I will refrain from delving into the film’s specifics and just say that every thread does indeed tie together – mostly. Well, kind of. Us is uniquely ambitious for a horror film – perhaps a tad too ambitious, if I may be honest. On the surface, it’s an intriguing “evil twin” type story that initially threatens to play out like a boilerplate home invasion tale (à la The Purge), but thankfully develops into something more interesting and infinitely more complex by way of everything going on below the surface – and I’m not just talking about those tunnels again. Peele wastes no time in establishing visual markers that will be called back to throughout the plot, nor does he squander any opportunity to implement imagery for the purposes of symbolism or foreshadowing. Themes of duality, opposites, and classism abound, not to mention allusions to Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Time Machine (those who know what I’m talking about will, well… know what I’m talking about). There is a great deal to unravel here – thematically, visually, symbolically, and narratively – and inattentive viewers may find themselves quickly lost if they do something foolish like nip off to the bathroom, check their Instagram profiles, or even blink. Even the most vigilant audience members will surely benefit from multiple viewings. I know I would, and that’s saying something – nothing gets by this critic.
Like Get Out, Us isn’t a conventional horror – actually, it probably defies all attempts at labelling simply because it has so much to say about so many different things. In a lesser director’s hands the entire project might have buckled under its own weight, but fortunately Peele is proving himself to be a talented maestro who uses every note, rest, and break of the film’s narrative melody to compose a symphony that will serve to immortalize him long after his arrangements have been forgotten. Even Us’s most vocal detractors have acknowledged Peele’s skill as a director, a concession that I find singularly generous because I can absolutely see where those who don’t love symphonies are coming from.
The legitimate grievance that some viewers are having with Us is that a great deal many assumptions must be made concerning its worldbuilding, with comparatively little of it being resolved in a satisfactory fashion. We are expected to just accept that everyone in America is tethered unawares to a genetic duplicate that dwells in a series of tunnels below our feet, where they eat rabbits and helplessly shadow our every nose-pick and bum-scratch up on the surface. A government experiment is suggested as the origin of these ‘shadows,’ but what was its purpose? How did they collect the DNA of everyone in the country? Why was the experiment abandoned? How has nobody found those tunnels – which are apparently accessible by waltzing through two unlocked doors and a down an escalator – before now? Where do the doppelgängers get their clothes and how do they keep those tunnels so clean? How are they able to break free of their tethering, and why did it not happen prior to the events of the film? These and many other questions are never answered because at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Like the dream technology in Inception, we’re asked to just accept that this is the way it is and focus on the relationship between our heroine and her vendetta-driven alternate, both played expertly by deserved Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o.
In this regard, Us is a bit like Cabin in the Woods if all of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins’ scenes in the facility were absent and Sigourney Weaver didn’t show up in the final moments to smush exposition into the gaps. Imagine that, hey? Viewers demanding answers and narratives wrapped up in neat bows will surely be left infuriated, but those willing to immerse themselves in Peele’s mise-en-scène will doubtless leave the theater satisfied.
Though Peele begs you to suspend your disbelief just a little beyond reasonable limits, he still deserves accolades for weaving a visual tapestry that both provides a compelling character tale and invites in-depth analysis, even if his efforts do noticeably fray ever so slightly around the edges.