Jordan Peele’s Us is a Beautiful Nightmare

Oscar Kim Bauman, Scarlet Staff

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Us, writer/director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Academy Award-winning debut film Get Out, is advertised as “a new nightmare.” Beyond simply being a line of marketing, the phrase is an apt description of the film, which beyond beyond deeply haunting, has a truly engrossing, dreamlike quality.

Us begins with a fairly straightforward horror film premise. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o, in her first of two leading roles,) a successful mother on a family vacation, struggles to deal with the lingering emotional trauma of a disturbing childhood incident while simultaneously keep her family safe from a menacing family of doppelgangers, known as the Tethered, which appear outside her vacation home. From this premise, Peele delves into dark, thought-provoking territory, most of which would be considered a spoiler for those yet to see the film.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Us is Lupita Nyong’o’s dual performance as Adelaide and Red, Adelaide’s doppelganger. Each performance, taken independently, would be impressive. When you account for the fact that the nervous, caring mother and the unnervingly calm, menacing home invader are played by the same actor, generating a tense dynamic between the two characters, Nyong’o’s acting ability becomes all the more astounding.

Between the characters’ body language (Adelaide is shaky and awkward, Red is poised and purposeful) and voices (Adelaide speaks in a soft, clear tone, while Red’s voice is harsh and choked,) Nyong’o creates a clear impression of two people who, despite their shared appearance, could not be more different.

Although given less to do, the rest of the main cast pull off equally impressive double performances. Shahadi Wright Joseph’s turn as the disinterested Zora pairs well with the threat posed by Umbrae, her stoic double. Winston Duke’s Gabe is an affable figure, almost an archetypical sitcom dad, which stands in stark relief to his double, the violent, imposing Abraham. 10-year-old Evan Alex delivers a particularly effective pair of performances, as the quiet Jason and his twitchy, animalistic double Pluto, with whom Jason seems to share a preternatural connection, as well as an uneasy fascination with fire.

Another great strength of Us is its score. Composed by Michael Abels, who made his film scoring debut with Get Out’s score, it makes prominent use of harsh, dissonant strings to create a pervasive sense of dread. Particular standouts are his compositions “Anthem,” an uneasy nonsense chant, and a reworking of 90’s hip hop hit “I Got 5 on It” by Luniz which turns a chill pot-smoking anthem into a jagged, dramatic orchestral track.

Central to Us is its underlying message. Us is the second of what Peele describes as an intended series of “social thriller” films, the first of which was Get Out. While the first film presented a comparatively straightforward parable for liberal racism and cultural appropriation, the social themes of Us are more difficult to parse immediately.

Perhaps most obvious is that Us is a commentary on American society. Its title may alternatively be read as “U.S.” and it opens with a commercial for Hands Across America, the 1986 anti-poverty campaign whose central image of a chain of people hand in hand is replicated by the Tethered to a chilling effect. When a petrified Adelaide asks Red what the Tethered are, Red evocatively answers “We’re Americans.”

Beyond this, Peele’s commentary touches upon themes of class, as the aspirational, upper-middle class life of the Wilsons is contrasted with the wealthier Tyler family, as well as the extreme underclass represented by the Tethered. Peele, a devoted cinephile, packs each frame with detail, and references which may slip by on an initial viewing may gain additional meaning on a second, or even third one.

Perhaps Peele’s greatest achievement is how well Us works on two levels; it’s a fast-paced, thrilling, terrifying experience which will leave you cheering and on the edge of your seat. At the same time, it contains enough subtext and greater meaning for weeks of further discussion and several repeat viewings to catch new deals.

Neither aspect of Us works to the detriment of the other. Rather, both work hand in hand towards a captivating cinematic experience. Instead of attempting to remake or outdo the excellent Get Out, Us is something entirely different, and one which indicates the kind of creative vision which bodes well for Peele’s future work.