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Tethered family: Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex and Lupita Nyong'o.EXPAND
Tethered family: Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex and Lupita Nyong'o.
Universal Pictures

The Horror of Us: Jordan Peele's Exploration of Cultural Duality Is Exquisite

It's not an exaggeration to say that Us is one of the most debatable, rife for interpretation, and simply unforgettable films of all time, and there's a reason for that — writer-director Jordan Peele (Get Out) planned it that way. Shamelessly seeped in cinematic pop culture references of the past, with a layered narrative that feels like metaphoric commentary on multiple ideas at once, this is a movie that demands thoughts and feelings, even as it entertains in a basic, visceral way. It is a horror film, after all, but a very special one.

Yes, there is a Get Out–ish twist, and like that acclaimed film, one might feel a little manipulated or toyed with as the story is revealed. But the more you think about it after leaving the theater (and likely returning and watching it again), the more you realize that Peele isn't posturing when he asserts his faith in the audience's intelligence (he's said so multiple times in recent press about Us, including at last week's premiere at South by Southwest). Like many are sure to do after viewing the film this weekend, I had to hit the web afterward to help answer some questions. Amid all the outrageous fan theories about what this movie really means, the most enlightening takes were spoiler-free and came from Peele himself. "In a time where we fear the other, the invader who might come and kill us or take our jobs or a faction we don't live near that voted different from us, we're all about pointing the finger," he said. "But I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us."

"Us" refers to creepy, scissor-toting doppelgangers in red jumpsuits (called "the Tethered"), which is easy enough to gather from the promo posters and trailer, but it also refers to the "U.S." (United States), and a vague government experiment involving cloning that ultimately creates the murderous mess the main characters must endure, fighting their doubles in the meat of the movie. The film is centered on an amiable family vacation to Santa Cruz taken by the Wilsons — mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) — which starts out familiar enough but soon turns dark and deadly. The matriarch has a traumatic past involving the Northern California locale and specifically the beach, where as a child she wandered away from her parents on the boardwalk, entered a menacing house of mirrors and encountered her body double/Tethered twin.

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Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) sees her evil self for the first time.EXPAND
Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) sees her evil self for the first time.
Universal Pictures

Peele throws a lot at us in the opening scenes — a text graphic about hidden tunnels beneath our city streets, another quoting the Bible passage Jeremiah 11:11, the unsettling boardwalk scene and a wall of bunny rabbits as the opening credits roll, with eerie, chantlike music prepping us for what's to come. It's obvious that every minute detail has a purpose here — backgrounds, words onscreen, music, even styling. The T-shirt young Adelaide wins in a carnival game is emblazoned with Michael Jackson in Thriller, and it is referenced as "scary" by her mom but not for the reason that contemporary audiences will think of (the movie was made before recent revelations). I haven't seen other reviewers talk about the clothing in Us, but it deserves note: We see not one but two Black Flag T-shirts in this movie (still no idea what they mean if anything, but punk represents rebelliousness and the Tethered's rampage and rebellion drives most of this story), a bunny T-shirt (the furry critters play into the reveal and cloning thread later) and, most significantly, a Jaws T-shirt worn by Adelaide's son Jason in a pivotal beach scene.

Like Steven Spielberg when he made that iconic shark movie, Peele is at the beginning of his filmmaking career, and he has already developed a signature style. It's exciting to think about what he'll do next, and after this week, anticipation for his revamp of The Twilight Zone is sure to reach fever pitch. Though he places lots of Easter eggs and clues in Us to make the viewer think and rethink what he's trying to say, there's not a lot of subtlety about what he wants you to feel.

As in Get Out and the moment we realize its sardonic intentions as racial commentary, the revelation that Us is actually an apocalyptic nightmare packs a mesmerizing and spine-tingling punch. And though this movie mostly eschews matters of race, it's telling that the most brutal blows (literally and figuratively) happen at the house of the Wilsons' rich white friends, the Tylers. Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The Handmaid's Tale) and Tim Heidecker (Tim and Eric Awesome Show) really kill it in their dual roles as the friends and friends' insidious doubles, and Peele's musical backdrop to their bloodbath (played via an annoying Alexa-like speaker device) conjures a lot, from classism to cultural cliches to the duality (obviously a recurring theme) of being human — we're talking The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" into N.W.A's "Fuck tha Police."

Lupita Nyong'o as Adelaide Wilson fights herself.EXPAND
Lupita Nyong'o as Adelaide Wilson fights herself.
Universal Pictures

Peele's choices are always bold and spot-on like this, even when they seem silly on the surface (take note of the "Hands Across America" commercial at the start of the movie). Even when crammed with stuff we're supposed to take in, there's an artful simplicity to his shooting style, and every scene is gorgeous to look at, even when it's gory. Mostly, though, it's the tension and dread he creates that puts him on par with the greatest directors ever. Movie lovers will see parallels in his work not only with Spielberg but also Stanley Kubrick (there are even some nods to The Shining) and, at least where climactic twists are concerned, M. Night Shyamalan.

Comedy, however dark, is what sets this director apart from the above, and Peel's background in that arena gives him something extra in terms of how he chooses to convey his characters' motivations. It helps that, so far, he's worked with exceptional casts. In Us the actors have to be doubly good, since many are playing dual roles. Nyong'o gives the stellar, Oscar-worthy centerpiece performance here, conjuring so many things, including generational trauma, parental paranoia and — slight spoiler alert — ambiguity about who she really is. Is she one of "us" or one of "them"? The movie's most provocative point seems to be that, despite everything that divides us in this country and this world, there really isn't that much of a difference.

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