“The only me is me. Are you sure the only you is you?”
We live in a nation where there are two Americas. One is the proud land of the free and home of the brave, the glorious place of opportunity and prosperity where anything is possible if you’re just willing to work hard enough. The other is a cold and pestilent land riddled by corporate greed, income inequality, racism, police brutality, white supremacy, and unregulated capitalism. Which side you see and experience depends largely on the tax bracket you belong to. But either way, it doesn’t make either side any less valid – only more fractured.
In Us, writer-director Jordan Peele observes this social-political divide through a harrowing horror-thriller experience that seeks to inform and entertain at the same time. In this creative, chilling, and deeply unsettling psychological thriller, Lupita Nyong’o plays Adelaide Wilson, a loyal wife and mother to two beautiful children. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her children Zora (Shahadi Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) travel to their Lake House in Santa Cruz where they meet up with Gabe’s affluent friends, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss).
But while they are there, Adelaide remembers a disturbing childhood memory where she came face-to-face with herself inside of a hall of mirrors. She still doesn’t know whether she came across an actual doppelganger of herself or if she was merely staring at her reflection. That question is soon answered for her when her family is hunted by, well, themselves later that night. The duplicate family calls themselves “the Tethered,” and they are almost exact copies of themselves save for a few ghastly differences. Her children are chased by disturbed, twisted distortions of their younger selves. Her husband is attacked by a scarred, huskier version of himself. And Adelaide is taunted by her mirrored self that is nothing but psychotic and bloodthirsty. Now on the run from their doppelgangers, Adelaide and her family needs to survive from this horrifying episode so they can find out where the Tethered came from and why they are after them.
This twisted and mindbending premise comes from the dizzying and creative mind of Jordan Peele, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay from Get Out earlier last year and co-produced Spike Lee’s smart and satirical black comedy BlacKkKlansman. With Peele reaching such large success in such a short amount of time, all eyes were on Peele’s sophomore effort to see how well his craft would match up against his directorial debut.
I’ll be the one to tell you firsthand that Us is not as good as Get Out: it’s even better. While Get Out smartly and ingeniously balanced between its commentary, scares, and comedy all at once, Us blends all of its elements together masterfully – like it’s mixing a deliciously chilling milkshake as opposed to a stacked ice cream sundae. Get Out was brilliant in how it inserted relevant social issues into its edgy and haunting plot and made you think about all of the implications stacked one on top of the other. Us is much more subtle in its message and its telling, and it’s all the more effective because of that.
One of the immediate issues I thought about while watching this movie was income inequality. In one monologue early in the film, one of the Tethered compared its life to the original and illustrated how every time the original ate, the Tethered starved, every time the original drank, the Tethered was dry of thirst, and every time the original felt happy and fulfilled, the Tethered felt sadness and grief. I at first thought this was just my own interpretation of it, but as the movie went on it kept making small nudges towards the Tethered’s marginalization and their struggle towards being seen and heard. Imagine, for instance, if you were persecuted and suffering in ways that would make you feel inhuman, maybe even animalistic? Imagine the pain, the anger, the hate you might feel from such an ordeal. Then look at the Tethered’s actions through that filter. Do they still seem like mindless, boorish beasts to you, or can you suddenly see intention behind their hollow, dead eyes?
The beautiful thing about this premise is that it doesn’t have to just apply to income inequality – it can apply to any social issue, whether its healthcare, gun control, immigration, racism, or religion. It isn’t specific to any issue because there is no difference for the persecuted beyond their suffering. Who you see in their seat depends largely on where you come from and what life experiences you’ve had along the way.
I have to praise the talented and diverse cast in this movie, because so much rests on their portrayals of not just one character, but two. Lupita Nyong’o obviously deserves the most credit since she pioneers this movie through her portrayals of both Adelaide and her splintered doppelganger. She masterfully portrays the frightfulness and horror of one character while simultaneously expressing the bloodlust and psychopathy of another. She easily expresses the most range out of any other actor in the film, and I would argue she’s even earned Oscar consideration for her passioned performances in this film.
But equally deserving in recognition is her on-screen family – or should I say, families? Winston Duke was great in both last year’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and here he does just as great a job as both a loving family man and a barbaric giant. Shahadi Joseph portrays just as much duality as her on-screen mother does and shows a lot of promise for her future career. The young Evan Alex is especially surprising. He’s both a curious and charming little prankster in one beat and a savage little pyromaniac in another. It’s amazing to watch these actors express such a vivid contrast between both of their characters, especially given how young some of them are.
Us is a brilliant, haunting, and harrowing horror experience that says a lot about the current state of our political culture while at the same time not playing specifically to either side of the fence. It’s a thought-provoking, contemplative cinematic experiment that keeps you thinking for hours on end after you’ve left the theater, and it makes you think about what monsters you might have created without even knowing it. I suspect the movie’s themes will hit home hard for some moviegoers while others will have the message fly over their heads. That doesn’t mean Jordan Peele is any less masterful in writing, directing, and releasing this cinematic masterpiece. It does, however, point to the divides some people in this country experience. We would benefit much from learning more about those who differ most from us. Perhaps we could start with the Tethered?