The prowess of a Jordan Peele film reveals itself in the dive. With Get Out—his Oscar-winning 2017 social thriller about brain-swapping white liberals and their obsession with black bodies—Peele explored what it meant to descend into, and ultimately be trapped by, the dark vista of the mind. What unfurled was a cerebral madhouse of tangled racial horrors. It felt true. Especially true if, like Daniel Kaluuya's character Chris Washington, you are forced to live in the world merely as a consequence to mischievous white purveyors. Peele is likewise consumed by the crescendo, the ascent. He is just as eager to detail the rise from psychological or physical terror to a place of safety. What the writer-director-producer ultimately privileged in Get Out—was it the fall or the climb?—is much harder to parse; the project lends itself to a dense canniness.
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Yet, the sum of Peele's work isn't uniquely about the summit or the slope—they're mostly just devices he employs to great effect, hallmarks of a growing mastery. His films' elucidation, then, lies in the context in which those emotions take place. He is someone who appreciates the complexities of the metaphorical rabbit hole. How deep it runs. Where it takes his characters (and, by extension, viewers). What we take from it. Its cavernous toll on the body and the mind in moments of escape or bold embrace. With Us, his latest horror puzzle, Peele continues to burrow furiously into the sinister subterranean of the American project.
With the unsettling slink of a classic horror flick, Us's prologue opens in 1986 in the lazy California beach town Santa Cruz. During a trip to the local boardwalk, an elementary-age Adelaide (a hypnotic Madison Curry) becomes curiously enthralled by a carnival attraction (a credit to Peele's guile, the entrance perfectly forebodes: "Find Yourself"). Alone, having wandered off from her father, she roams the mysterious hall of mirrors and is taken in by her reflection. Literally. Adelaide is greeted by an exact, living, breathing replica of herself. The encounter is so jarring she flees in what we are meant to believe is a moment of panic. The experience, which is only hinted at in the opening exhales of the movie but comes into full view much later, leaves her with permanent lacerations. When we meet Adelaide as an adult (Lupita Nyong'o in her first lead role) she's married with two kids—Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex)—but the trauma of the experience has irrevocably scarred her psyche. A family road trip back to the same beachside town threatens to rip the wound wide open. This being a Jordan Peele undertaking, it doesn't take long for the blood to pool.
The one contemporary fracture the film is clear on is the poison of class struggle: the eternal fight between those at the top and those at the bottom, the above versus below.
There are, to my count, three key moments of descent in Us. The first begins after the Wilsons return from a day at the beach. They're at home when, unexpectedly, the lights cut. Outside in the driveway looms a family of four, eerily identical to the Wilsons. Adelaide's husband Gabe (Black Panther 's Winston Duke) lobs physical threats, warning he will "get crazy," but the family is unmoved by his faux-machismo (he's a lovable goof at heart). The twist, of course, is that these invaders are also the Wilsons. Young Adelaide from the boardwalk funhouse has grown into Red, a gravelly-voiced, remorseless matriarch. She's an inverse, darkness to the light of the Adelaide we have come to know, a shadow made flesh. As it turns out, each member of the Wilson clan has an evil doppelgänger, cracked mirror versions of their real selves. They call themselves the Tethered.
The second descent happens when it is revealed that the Wilsons are not the only ones haunted by malevolent, blood-thirsty clones. Everyone in town is. Overnight, Santa Cruz is animated by death—the Tethered have risen from the tunnels to enact revenge on their above-ground selves. The carnage is instantly volcanic: Once it detonates, the spill is impossible to contain and the radius of doom seems to expand by the minute. Even as the ruin curdles, it allows Peele to flex his penchant for humor. (A highlight: During a moment of frantic escape, the Wilsons take a moment to bicker over who has the most kills. It's Gabe, with two.)
By now, the film has shed more of its layers—it's a home invasion thriller that involves a zombie-like apocalypse—but it does so at the expense of leaving viewers dizzy, even as it scatters references to horror staples The Shining, Jaws, and A Nightmare on Elm Street in its wake. That's not to say Us lacks for control, the film is not as loose as it occasionally feels, though it is at times derailed by its insistence on brevity. Perhaps that's intentional. On The Ringer's Big Picture podcast, Peele referred to Us as "a bit more of a Rorschach than my last picture. It's really about looking within."
Whatever the case, Peele extends his audience too much credit this time around. All of the film's stray points—Why do the Tethered wear red jumpsuits and carry golden scissors? Exactly how many of them exist? When did they first come to be?—never add up. The one contemporary fracture the film is clear on is the poison of class struggle: the eternal fight between those at the top and those at the bottom, the above versus below. This divide, the feeling of being left behind, is what fuels Red's venomous hate.
The final descent, though, delivers one of the most striking notes in Us. It's what the film is rocketing towards from its start, a fated and fatal end point: a gruesomely poetic standoff between Adalaide and Red. It is also, to Peele's credit, a literal descent. Adelaide ventures deep into an underground bunker to rescue Jason, where Red is waiting. Their fight is beautifully intercut with flashbacks of teenage Adelaide performing at a ballet recital. Cinematically, all the notes hit—the swift, curved shots; the slow villainous lurch of "I Got 5 on It"; the tug of Nyong'o's eyes, those cracked watery pearls that ache with pathos, the way they demand full surrender. If Us is a film that privileges swell—and it very much is, sometimes to a fault—here, Peele embraces that bloat with brilliance and flair.
In the film's closing scene it's revealed, with a wink and a rascal of a smile, that the Adelaide who traveled into the bunker was not quite the same one who rose from it. And in that, we may very well have the most enduring message in Peele's cinematic oeuvre—one that neither situates his work as a grand class parable or a genre-thrashing racial thriller—that even if we are lucky enough to escape, to ascend from the rabbit hole of our own private hells, we are never free from the transformation that has taken hold within us.
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