“Who are you?” our protagonist, Adelaide Wilson asks her counterpart. “We are Americans,” her red cloaked doppelganger replies with a voice that sounds like it went through a meat grinder. It’s not a particularly subtle moment, yet, Jordan Peele has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker. After demolishing the box office with the critically acclaimed “Get Out,” Peele has become something of a George Romero, turning in masterfully directed genre pictures with incisive social commentary. His method is simple, yet effective: he uses a sledgehammer to crack open the shell of his subject matter, then a scalpel to dissect its soft underbelly. It’s a method that serves him well in “Us,” a superior film to “Get Out” in many ways.
While “Get Out” felt, in many ways, like a haunted house movie, “Us” feels more like a home invasion thriller. Following a financially privileged family whose Santa Cruz vacation home gets invaded by a group of sinister clones, “Us” uses its simplicity as a conduit for some sharp social commentary that feels far more open-ended and ambitious than Peele’s first feature. As a piece of genre filmmaking, it’s aces. Peele’s use of the steadicam feels incredibly controlled and purposeful, tugging us along the story as if we were attached to a fishing line. The opening scene is an especially powerful example of this, as we are sucked into a scene that involves little more than a little girl walking around the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Throughout the whole film, Peele is able to maintain a level of suspense even within the comparatively lighthearted scenes.
However, one of Peele’s most underrated strengths is his ability to direct actors. He utilizes a motif that “Get Out” incorporated, one that I’ll call “The Jordan Peele Reaction.” It’s a look of abject terror, one of wide-eyed, tear-inducing horror. It suggests a fear that is primal, one that moves beyond the clichés that the typical horror “scream queens” produce. Lupita Nyong’o seems born to play a character in one of his movies. She’s an incredibly reactive actor, and, not to give too much away, but she is given a lot to juggle in this film. She threads the needles with the ease of an acrobat and the ferocity of a boxer. Winston Duke is enjoyable to watch as the goofy father, balancing a mixture of dramatic and comedic moments effectively.
The joy of “Us” comes from its open ended-ness. There can be multiple interpretations of it, no doubt shown through the variety of thinkpieces many critics have already produced. For me, it stood as a reflection of Trump’s America. These doppelgangers are the parts of us that we like to forget, the side of America downtrodden and left behind. They’re the Confederate flag wavers, the impoverished rural dwellers, the closet racists. They are the hidden dark side of the country that has been swept under a rug of neoliberalism. Like “Get Out,” Peele isn’t interested in the easy targets. He’s attacking us as an audience, and our complacency in letting these evil aspects of our country to flourish. The title is a dead giveaway: “Us” is not about the other – -it’s about those who do the othering.