Jordan Peele is the master of the horror subgenre horror noir. Two years after his masterpiece “Get Out” (2017), he releases another horror film with Afro-American protagonists as a piece of social criticism.
The story starts in 1986, when the young Adelaide gets traumatised after walking off to a mirror palace by the beach all by herself. Two decades later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) visits the same beach with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids, where they meet their friends, a Caucasian couple (played by the phenomenal Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), and their twin daughters. That same evening, the family gets terrorised by a doppelgänger family, looking exactly like them, but wearing red suits and carrying golden scissors. What starts off as a cosy family trip, ends in a nightmare.
The doppelgängers are referred to as their shadows, called ‘The Tethered, chained to their originals by sharing one soul in two different bodies. The Tethered are here to claim their place in the world by replacing their original human beings. A recurring motif are the rabbits – a lot of rabbits!- referring to the rather unholy experiment the doppelgängers are submitted to by not being able to live in the world like normal people. These rabbits are a reference to “Alice in Wonderland” (book by Lewis Carroll, 1986) , where the wonderland in “Us” is rather dark and sinister.
“Us” is a dark piece of social criticism, since the title can also be read as the abbreviation of United Stated (one of the characters says ‘We are Americans’), by which Peele rather unsubtly refers to racism, poverty, class privilege and violence in his country. Unlike “Get Out”, this film is less about race inequality, but more about the haunting social conscience of the American middle class. There is no longer something like the so-called ‘American Dream’ everyone strives to live by.
Peele is originally a comedian, known for his sketches later turned into memes. For him to find his resort in the horror genre is not that surprising. Unless the genrespecific shift between scary elements and humour (p.e. a boat called ‘B’yacht’ch’), Peele gives a twist to the specific elements and turns the film into a unique piece of art. He manages to keep it subtle and mysterious, almost sophisticated. “Us” is not a slasher or gory horror. Most of the times you can see the blood, but you can’t see any actual stabbing. Violence and murder is shown implicitely.
When it comes to acting performances, Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”, 2013) stands out, giving substance to the term of the ‘final girl’, which has been a recurrent element in the horror genre throughout decades. Only this time, she is not a Caucasian virgin, but an Afro-American mother protecting her family against evil no matter what.
Personally, I think the soundtrack is what adds up to both the narrative and the visuals, which is composed by Michael Abels. He also wrote the soundtrack for “Get Out”. A recurrent tune is the bombastic creepy remix version of the 90’s R&B classic ‘I got 5 on it‘ by Luniz. Personally, I love the mixture of a classic soundtrack and pop hits. For example, the Caucasian family getting murdered on the tunes of The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations‘ , makes it so much more lightweight and almost sadistically funny, which reminds me of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games US” (2007).
Peele’s “Us” is a masterpiece crossing borders between genres, where comedy and horror seem to intertwine easily. “US” refers to sources like “Funny Games US”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Shining” (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) and “Invasion of The Body Snatchers” (Don Siegel, 1956), but not really subtle, unfortunately. Nonetheless, I never really found it annoying, but rather enriching, because of Peele’s narration techniques and beautiful dynamic visuals. “Us” is a mysterious film, where punch lines are open for interpretation and add up to Peele’s social criticism.
“Us” is released in Belgian cinemas on March 20th.