“They look exactly like us. They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won’t stop until they kill us… or we kill them.”
“Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. And the girl ate, her food was given to her warm and tasty. But when the shadow was hungry, he had to eat rabbit raw and bloody. On Christmas, the girl received wonderful toys; soft and cushy. But the shadow’s toys were so sharp and cold they sliced through her fingers when she tried to play with them.”
At the beginning of this horror film by Jordan Peele, the audience sees a Bible verse prominently displayed by a man who looks homeless. Silently, he testifies to the verse scrawled on this handmade cardboard sign, “Jeremiah 11:11”. That verse, in the King James Bible, reads: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” Other translations substitute the word “evil” with “disaster” and some people watching the film may be unfamiliar with this particular verse while the movie is running but still get the eerie feeling that evil is about to pierce into this normal family’s lives in shocking ways. So it does.
“Us” is about our delusions. The horror of this film are the stories we tell ourselves that distract from the madness within. The id. The sin nature. Dark animalistic impulses. The brilliance of Peele’s second cinematic effort in the director’s chair is that he does not just relegate this to individual delusion but also to a broader collective one.
When we first see the sign pointing us to the prophet Jeremiah, the setting is 1986 at a carnival. Little Adelaide walks away from her dad and into a fun house of sorts that eerily suggests people will “find themselves” with a giant arrow inviting a patron to come inside. As Adelaide walks around the fun house, she sees herself reflected back from every angle from the mirrors. Seemingly, she is alone until she meets a girl that looks exactly like her. It isn’t a reflection. She sees a living, breathing version of herself with a face that is less frightened but perhaps carries a strong menace.
Fast forward to the present and the Wilson family are well-to-do and in order to take a break from their busy modern lives, they enact an escape to their lake house. Adult Adelaide (an excellent Lupita Nyong’o) seems apprehensive about the trip. The couple’s children Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) ride along. The father Gabe (Winston Duke) is eager to impress their rich friends. That couple is Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) who brags about plastic surgery being done to her face but then suggests that Adelaide wouldn’t need that. Back at their lake house, Gabe attempts to drive the families new boat. They have the toys, the homes and the comfortable upper middle class existence.
Then the doppelgangers show up at night and plot turns into a disturbing home invasion tale and yet becomes way more than that. The son Jason exclaims upon seeing them, “It’s us.” The look-a-likes sit down after assaulting the Wilson family. Adelaide’s carbon copy, with the same menace and wild-eyed craziness from the 1986 encounter, states their complaints and when the Wilson’s want to know who these intruders are, Adelaide’s doppelgangers replies in a squeaky, high pitched voice with a slow cadence, “We’re Americans.”
And that is a bit about what Peele (the writer, producer and director) is getting at. A widespread ignorance and a not-so-thinly veiled revelation about America’s class system. Going further, Peele suggests that America’s materialism blinds everyone from an egregiously twisted reality where sins (both individual and collective) are glossed over with nicer homes, fancy cars, boats and a comfortable existence.
Peele is playing the old school tent revivalist preacher in cinematic form. If we do not individually and as a whole deal with the perverse evil bubbling up around us, destruction will be imminent. The terrifying questions around the edges of the film is how do we live with ourselves when we discover the rampant evil within and the corrosive corruption at the heart of the systems we have built. Once the truth becomes revealed to us all, what do we do?
The message of Peele is serious and so it is saying something that he can incorporate some humor into “Us”, mostly in the form of one-liners and other irony. All throughout the film are homages paid to horror films of the past as well. Overhead driving shots of the Wilson family which remind us of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” as Jack Nicholson and family travel to the Overlook Hotel. A character wears a “Jaws” shirt prominently during a beach scene suggesting that a ravenous monster is below the surface. Another character wears a Michael Jackson “Thriller” T-shirt and the doppelgangers walk around in red jump suits like the King of Pop used to do. Is there a more prominent figure in pop culture who at once was one of the greatest entertainers of all time and yet privately was an accused child-raping, predatory monster? The duality suggested here is certainly intentional.
Creepy and legitimately surprising, I was not able to predict where Peele goes with this story. The writer/director in his sophomore effort has crafted yet another horror movie that delivers thrills but also invites the audience to discuss its potent themes at the conclusion. “Us” is a cage rattler and a clarion wake up call. I hope we heed it.
Lester Lauding Level: 4.5 (out of 5)