Director: Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele does it again with Us (2019), a film that stands out in the crop of horror this year as the most thoughtful, well-produced, well-acted, and most tense film so far. It has all the characteristics that are becoming Peele’s hallmark: callbacks to horror classics that don’t feel forced, dark humor, and genuinely horrific situations – psychological and gory. His characters are likable, and the settings – a beachside town, a carnival, a boardwalk – make the horror all the stronger. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex as a family dealing with a situation straight from Alice in Wonderland’s nightmares, the film manages to feel short despite its nearly two-hour runtime. There’s a reason, when going to see it in my local small-town theater on a Monday night, that the theater was packed.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
From the scissors, masks, and rabbits to the discussion of light and shadow, the film is full of stark imagery and deeper meaning. The film, as implied in the trailer, takes the concept of the doppelgänger and digs into what that might mean for humanity. If each of us has a double, a dark side, something in us that gives in to the darker urges we repress each moment of our lives that together keep society running, then what happens when the dark side wins? Peele’s world is one of false comfort. For Adelaide (Nyong’o), this means changing and adapting. In a world she thought she knew but is constructed around her (and by extension all of us), she cements what she values and what she took for granted. Like Adelaide, we too can’t even trust our memories, and we certainly cannot trust ourselves or our friends, in a world where backstabbing and identify theft are as common as electricity.
In the end, Adelaide faces new knowledge of herself, and but that knowledge is just one more part of all the little pieces that make her who she is. As Adelaide’s doppelgänger Red tells her in a crucial scene when asked who they are, “We’re Americans.” The title isn’t just for us, but for the capital U.S. And, just as Peele implies, we remain cogs in a machine that we, like it or not, have little control over. Like the doppelgängers, we move through our lives with repetitive motions and false faces that may not actually express our deeper fears, feelings, or interests. And, eventually, we must move into the light by either killing our darker halves or embracing them.
On references alone, Peele proves his horror chops with little Easer eggs for those keeping a sharp watch. Look for shout outs to Chuud, Jaws, The Wolfman, The Strangers, and the music video for “Thriller.” He goes deeper though, pulling from what those films commented on: Jaws for example is about more than a monstrous shark, but a town that blindly ignores the horrors happening there to attract summer visitors. The Wolfman isn’t about just a man who becomes a monster, but about a transformation against that man’s control, turning him into something monstrous and slowly losing his humanity in the process. People will be analyzing these references and what they imply for a long time, and Peele’s film courts that rewatchability so coveted by other filmmakers. In a world where our media often feels quick, cheap, and disposable, Peele has something to say and uses this film to say it. What we come away with critiques that culture, our government, and our life choices, but also asks what makes us human.