We’ve all had moments of introspection wondering what our lives would be like in different circumstances. How much are we defined by our environment? Our acquired tastes? Our relationships? Our privilege? Why do we do certain things, and avoid others? Could our worst enemy be lurking within, tamed by material comforts and human connection? And what would happen if those were taken away?
In Us, Jordan Peele has made another socially-conscious horror movie out of this nagging, subconscious feeling of self-doubt and unease. By now, you probably are aware of the plot highlights: A family on vacation find themselves under siege by four people who look uncannily like them. But there’s obviously more to it than that.
The action opens in 1986. A young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry), on vacation in Santa Cruz with her parents, wanders off on her own at a carnival and finds herself standing before a eerie-looking fun house advertising a vision quest. Inside, she encounters something that scars her forever: an exact copy of herself. Fast-forward nearly 30 years later, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and the mother of sullen teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and quiet introvert Jason (Evan Alex). The Wilsons are the picture of an upper-middle class American family. They’re affluent — although Gabe still covets the more showy wealth of friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) — and have the kind of easy, comfortable dynamic of kids playfully mocking their lame dad who loves boats. But soon after arriving at their Santa Cruz-adjacent beach house, Adelaide gets increasingly agitated: Something ominous is coming for them.
And as we know, that something is, well, them. Or at least, a version of themselves clad in red jumpsuits, one fingerless leather glove, and sandals (very Wild Wild Country), armed with golden, razor sharp shears, and led by Red (Nyong’o, in a seriously complex bit of double acting), Adelaide’s doppelganger, now all-grown up. They are “The Tethered,” shadows doomed to exist underground, as their more privileged versions live it up above.
In many ways, these copies mirror the defining characteristics of their hosts. Red is graceful, sylph-like in her movements as she weaves her way around the house in pursuit of her prey; Abraham, Gabe’s doppelganger, is all brute force, lumbering and pretty easy to outrun, but deadly once he catches up. Umbrae, with her creepy dead-eyed smile and cheetah-like speed, and Pluto, a masked boy obsessed with fire, round out the foursome.
What follows is essentially a supersized home invasion set-up, as The Tethered start to terrorize their other selves all across the country. Like Get Out, Us moves seamlessly between comedy and horror. (One second Gabe is clumsily trying to seduce his wife. The next, Jason appears to inform them that “there’s a family in our driveway.”) Michael Abels’ haunting score, now the soundtrack of my nightmares, is punctuated with fun, unexpected musical cues, like an ersatz Alexa named Ophelia playing The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and a symphonic version of Luniz’s “I Got Five On It.”
Peele continues to prove himself a master of horror, relying on camera blocking and sustained tension rather than cheap jump scares, and teasing nuanced and fascinating performances out of his actors. Moss has only brief screen time, but is transfixing as her undead-looking Tethered self enjoys a moment of pure self-indulgent pleasure applying lip gloss, a maniacal smile spreading across her scarred cheeks. (And we already know she looks damn good in red.) And Nyong’o! This is her most impressive and meaty performance since she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. Her turn as Red is the more technically impressive — that voice alone — but I’d argue that Adelaide requires even more subtlety. Even at her most carefree, there’s a shadow lurking within, one we don’t even quite realize is there until it’s too late.
Having a Black family as the stand-in for all-American suburban affluence already subverts some tired genre tropes, but Peele doesn’t stop there. While Gabe puts on a showy display of macho fierceness that ends in utter failure, Zora becomes the unlikely family savior, wielding a golf club with the fury of the Bear Jew from Inglourious Basterds.
Us’ greatest weakness is that it is both full of huge, complex ideas worthy of analysis, but also a plot that falls apart if you think about them too much. The class allegory that posits that the privileged few never gives a second thought to those linked to them — by virtue of their humanity if nothing else — until they’re being physically threatened is one that is worth careful consideration. But aside from Red, who communicates with Adelaide in a wheezy flap of a voice only rarely used, these doppelgangers feel more like zombies than our worst selves reflected back, and the big finale relies on a wordy information dump that’s more telling than showing. It’s messy, and a little clunky, but more than that, having loose ends tied up so neatly cheapens the message. Things are scarier when they aren’t explained.
Still, Us feels like an appropriately ambitious follow-up for Peele. It’s larger in scope, creative, and bold. And if Nyong’o isn’t nominated for an Oscar, the Academy deserves to have its own Tethered unleashed in protest.