Lupita Nyong'o turns in a performance for the ages in Us.
People don’t know how to react to Jordan Peele.
I was fortunate enough to get a preview of Us with an audience, and if you’ve ever been to a horror movie with a mostly black crowd in Memphis, you know it’s one of the greatest filmgoing experiences you can possibly have. To put it politely, people are loud and opinionated. If your movie sucks, you’re going to know about it.
Us scared the crap out of that audience, while also keeping them in stitches. When Peele really started to turn the screws, the audience reacted with a kind of scream-laugh, as if half of them were watching The Exorcist and the other half was watching Monty Python. Maybe they were both right.
Peele’s big screen directorial debut, Get Out, was an epoch-making art horror that built political allegory on a solid psychological horror foundation. Us is not overtly political — or at least, not overtly about white supremacy like Get Out. It’s tempting to call it a genre exercise, but it’s more like a genre expansion. Peele went diving deep to the subconscious to find the scariest images possible — our self image.
Nyong'o does double duty as hero and villain.
The heart of the film is a stunning performance by Lupita Nyong’o, doing double duty as both protagonist and antagonist. As Adelaide, she lays a veneer of normalcy over a deep well of trauma. We first meet Adelaide as a child (played by Madison Curry) on a tense night in 1986 at the Santa Cruz boardwalk (famously featured in The Lost Boys) with her father (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) and mother (Ann Diop). She wanders into a funhouse with the evocative name Shaman’s Vision Quest and, in the hall of mirrors, meets herself. Peele builds tension with pacing and visual composition, shooting the carnival like Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train. He uses stillness and symmetry to unnerve.
When we meet Adelaide as a grown-up, she has a loving, if goofy, husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright) and Jason (Evan Alex). The upper-middle-class family goes to their beach house for summer vacation, and for a little while Gabe is the star of an awkward dad comedy. He drags the family back to the Santa Cruz boardwalk to hang out with his friend Josh (Tim Heidecker, louting deliciously). Adelaide, already on edge, is forced to make small talk with Josh's wife Kitty, played by Elizabeth Moss having the time of her life swilling rosé and asking all the wrong questions. Then, after the trip has turned into the worst beach visit since Jaws, a duplicate family shows up in their driveway. Peele switches gears and a slasher dynamic takes over. He makes a feint towards torture porn before transitioning into a fast zombie scenario. Finally, with an echo of the church door shot from Prince Of Darkness, Us blossoms into full John Carpenter paranoia mode.
There is a hint of Tarantino postmodern pastiche going on here, but it’s not empty referencing. Peele isn’t showing off his knowledge, he just doesn’t give a damn about your genre expectations. He’s incredibly fluent in the cinematic languages of suspense, horror, and comedy, and he’s remixing them according to his own muse. Most importantly, Peele is not just using not just using images for visual inspiration, he grasps the meaning of the images. When he frames Nyong’o in a brightly lit doorway like John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, it means that she is leaving human society behind, probably for good. But Peele subtly reverses the shot — Ethan was leaving civilization to wander the wilderness, while Adelaide is descending into inner darkness.
Us roots itself in the subconscious from the get-go, and then weaponizes it against you. As Red, Adelaide’s scratchy-voiced doppleganger, Nyong’o is like a walking anxiety dream. She’s regret about the road not taken mixed with the call of the void and armed with a pair of cruel shears.
Ultimately, the most important artist Peele references is himself: The image from Get Out of tears streaming down a black face frozen in silent horror, unable to look away, recurs (at least) twice, with both Adelaide and Red. The pair are tethered together, doomed by forces they don’t understand to enact psychic and physical violence on each other. We cannot escape or bury the darkness in our subconscious, and even trying invites disaster. We have met the enemy, and she is Us.