Mirrors have been a tool in the horror genre since its inception. I think of the shattered mirror in Carrie as she gets ready for the prom, the REDRUM laden mirror in The Shining and more recently the sinister, inescapable reflections terrorizing Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. Just like those movies, Jordan Peele’s US uses the mirror (literal and figurative) to send a message to his audience.
Our story begins in 1986 Santa Cruz. Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is celebrating her birthday with her parents (Anna Diop and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) on the boardwalk. After her father has won her a “Thriller” t-shirt, he starts playing Whack a Mole as her mother makes her way to the bathroom. Adelaide wanders off to the beach as her father becomes more engrossed with his game, finding herself in a funhouse hall of mirrors. As she makes her way deeper into the maze, she becomes unsettled and tries to makes her way to the exit but bumps into a mirror wall and realizes what she saw was merely a reflection. As she backs away and tries to calm down, she turns around and sees something so terrifying that it registers as pure horror across her face. The screen cuts to black before we get to see what it was that scared her so deeply.
Fast forward to present day. Adelaide (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) is on her way to her summer house along with her husband (Winston Duke) and two kids: daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). When it’s announced the family will be headed to the very beach she went to as a child Adelaide stiffens, refusing at first before conceding to her husband’s wishes. We see through flashbacks that whatever she saw that night in the funhouse scarred her so deeply that it forced her into silence. Later, she overheard a conversation between a child psychologist and her parents that the symptoms she had been exhibiting since the incident in the funhouse were similar to PTSD.
“She wasn’t in ‘Nam,” her father says, insisting that she wasn’t even alone for that long, before her mother jumps in and reminds him that “You don’t know what she saw.” We, the audience don’t know either, but whatever it was it’s still lingering. Nyong’o’s performance is extremely committed from the very beginning; though there’s gaps in our understanding of Adelaide’s journey from childhood to adulthood, she fills in the blanks effectively enough to convey to the audience that whatever happened to her is deeply unsettling; we can feel her anxiety skyrocket as the family car nears closer and closer to the beach (but more on that later).
It isn’t long before the action begins: as the family gets ready to turn in for the evening, they notice what looks like a group of people standing in their drive way. The mysterious figures make their way into the house (by force) and settle in front of the fireplace as the Wilsons look on in horror. “It’s us” Jason astutely states as one of them lights a fire, revealing their faces. Each family member has their own doppelgänger, one more terrifying than the next, donning a red jumpsuit, gloves and a pair of menacing scissors. They’re led by Adelaide’s double, named Red, who is the only member who seems to know English. She speaks in an extremely hoarse voice as if she’s just been strangled to within an inch of her life. When asked who they are, she chuckles. We’re Americans.”
Red regales the family with a fairy tale of a princess born in the light, who enjoyed the finest of everything while her shadow suffered and ate “raw rabbit.” It doesn’t take long for us to decipher she’s talking about herself and Adelaide, who is so terrified she’s sweating bullets, unable to speak just like that night in the funhouse. Red belongs to a class of people called “The Tethered,” a group of people living underground in an abandoned system of tunnels, forced to imitate and repeat the actions of their near-clones living above ground. But Red’s arrival signals the end of that era; The Tethered have had enough, and now it’s their time to live in the light and enjoy the finer things.
So, what does it all mean exactly? Peele must have something to say, right? Well, it’s about us (no pun intended). “It’s about us,” he explained at the SXSW premiere, “looking at ourselves as individuals and as a group. The protagonist in the movie is the surrogate for the audience, so it felt like at the end of the day, I wasn’t doing my core theme any justice if I wasn’t revealing that we have been the bad guy in this movie.”
I’m not going to spoil anything beyond that, because much of the film’s magic comes from watching Peele place the pieces down until they coalesce into an unsettling puzzle. But Us is not Get Out part two. Get Out was a lean, 104 minutes long; each moment felt perfectly utilized in service of Peele’s message about race in America. Though only a few minutes longer, Us does feel a bit more padded and has more ideas swirling around the overall message. Where Get Out offered a clear, finite resolution in its story, Us leaves questions unanswered and anxieties unquelled. In the week since its release, there have been many who feel not everything works and the meaning behind the madness feels convoluted. I wouldn’t say those qualms are wrong, there are definitely moments where it felt like Peele was starting to trip over the wires he laid down, but they just didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It’s not wrong to recognize that Get Out is stronger as a film, but Us is still an audacious achievement, especially considering that it’s only Peele’s second film as a director. He has mentioned in numerous interviews that with this film, he wanted to do something completely different. This is unmistakably a Jordan Peele film, though entirely different from his breakout. I can respect his attempt to paving new ground while still staying true to his strengths as a storyteller.
Even if you find Us to be frustrating narratively, one thing everyone can agree on is Lupita Nyong’o’s performances as both Adelaide and Red that are the film’s crowning achievements. This should come as no surprise to anyone; Nyong’o is a classically trained actress who won an Academy Award for her debut performance as Patsey in 12 Years A Slave. She beat out the scenery chewing (and microwave exploding) Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, which was something of a miracle. Though not the focus of the film, Nyong’o made use of her very limited screen time to create a fully realized character. It’s rare that a Supporting Actress contender is actually a supporting character, and not just a lead being campaigned otherwise for the sake of nailing a nomination. Nyong’o gives a largely silent performance, relying mostly on her eyes. When Patsey does get the chance to speak, Nyong’o delivers a monologue so undeniably powerful it makes you forget this is her first big screen role. It is seared in my memory.
After winning the Oscar, Nyong’o did not enjoy the same sort of post-Oscar success offered to white, breakout ingenues such as Alicia Vikander or her fellow-Best Supporting Actress nominee Lawrence. She did appear in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, though as a CGI character and earned a Tony nomination for her work in Eclipsed but her Silver Linings Playbook or Tomb Raider reboot never came. It wouldn’t be until 2018’s Black Panther that Nyong’o appeared in the type of big budget studio film we associate with Oscar winners, though the lead of that film is inarguably Chadwick Boseman. Nyong’o is great as Nakia, but she is not the focal point. Us is the first time Nyong’o is the main attraction, and she doesn’t just carry the film on her back, she runs away with the whole thing. As she did with Patsey, Nyong’o silently traces a roadmap of these two women and their respective traumas. There is more exposition, but she leans into mannerisms and vocal affectations to really sell it, holding just enough back to pull the rug out from under out feet by the end. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. It’s a masterclass in acting by an actress who has finally been given the role of a lifetime.
Regardless of where you land on Us, you cannot deny that once again Jordan Peele has got us talking. And while many have been fixated on the ‘what, why and how’ of it all, the dissent of opinion has been more fascinating to me than any concrete answer. It’s not very often that a piece of mainstream filmmaking is this fascinating, even rarer that a non-franchise film feels like a true event. Us is a piece of art that will be analyzed and studied for years to come. It’s a terrifying hall of mirrors. What do you see? The answer may haunt you.