Jordan Peele’s ‘US’ is the much-anticipated follow-up to his socio-political horror ‘Get Out’. Whilst his breakout film was largely centered on the African-American experience, his follow up is loosely based on the idea of the Other. This concept, frequently featured in Gothic literature, focuses on natural human responses engendered by the intrusion of an outsider, be they a different gender, race, social class, religion, sexuality or even of a different political persuasion. The notion of the Other is perhaps more prescient now than it has ever been. The 2018 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water, explored this idea through the guise of a love story. The U.S government capture an amphibian man from South America, where he was hailed as a god. Their instinct, however, tells them that is a monster to be probed and tested. It’s different from them so it cannot be trusted. Of course, what Del Toro shows us is that the real ‘monsters’ are those in power who seek to suppress any difference which might challenge their world view.
Whilst ‘US’ is also full of socio-political subtext and there is an argument to be had over what this film is really about, one thing is for sure: ‘US’ doesn’t shy away from big ideas. With echoes of Dostoevsky’s classic novel ‘The Double’ and Denis Villeneuve’s mystery thriller ‘Enemy’, one of the standout ideas in this film is the discussion and subversion of the concept of the Other. What if the Other isn’t to be feared? What if the true monsters are us? When human nature is to project our fears, insecurities and guilt onto others, what happens when that projection and our reflection are one and the same?
“There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental U.S. Many have no known purpose at all”, declares the opening statement of ‘US’. A hint at what lies beneath the in-your-face story of doppelgangers and home invasions. This prefaces an unsettling opening scene, where we meet a young girl at a beach fairground with her parents in 1986. She wanders toward a hall of mirrors where she encounters something terrifying. We then flash forward to the present day and meet her as the adult Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) along with her family: her comedic, lovable husband Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and shy younger son Jason (Evan Alex). They arrive at a summer house for a vacation, close by the very Santa Cruz beach where Adelaide’s trauma began. So when Gabe insists on taking a day trip there, Adelaide decides to open up about her past and the dark shadow that seems to haunt her still.
What follows is a confluence of genre-bending events. A brooding mystery becomes a psychosocial horror, a home-invasion thriller and a black comedy all in one. The Wilson family are visited by their exact doubles - scissor wielding, boiler suit-wearing doppelgangers. When they come face to face and Adelaide asks her doppelganger ‘what are you?’, she’s met with an oddly chilling response, “we’re Americans.” (The title of the film can also be read as the acronym for the United States).
It’s here that the quality of Jordan Peele’s screenplay begins to shine through. Even though we may not have an idea of where the story is heading, the layers of subtext begin to unravel as the mystery and tension builds. With a background in comedy, it should be no surprise that writer/director Jordan Peele understands the thin red line between humour and horror, laughing and screaming, and one scene in particular shows his writing and direction at its darkest and funniest, mixing a classic 1960s feel good summer tune with a cold, brutal attack. In fact, a criticism of ‘US’ may be that it’s more funny than scary. Then again, the line between the two is razor-thin and crucially, Peele is interested in allowing the audience to interpret the events in their own way.
Accompanying this is Michael Abels’s hair-raising score, a blend of brooding strings, organ drones and pop motifs. This original score adds to the genre-fluid nature of ‘US’, at times building tension and mystery and at other times relieving us of it. A nod to the Luniz hit ‘I Got 5 On It’ is particularly sharp.
Alongside the layered script, the ensemble cast are excellent in each playing two parts (themselves and their seemingly deranged doubles), with Lupita Nyong’o the standout with one of the strongest female performances in a recent horror film. She joins the likes of Jodie Foster, Shelley Duvall and more recently, Toni Collette, in stepping into the dark with monsters (and in Nyong’o’s case, portraying one also).
‘US’ is a strong sophomore effort from Jordan Peele. Whilst it lacks the tight-knit power and sheer entertainment value of Get Out, its layered approach and ambition show that Peele is here to stay as a strong cinematic voice. Whether it is an allegory for privileged Westerners facing their inner demons, a parable of the class system in White America, or something entirely different, what sets ‘US’ apart from so many other horror films is that Jordan Peele is happy to let the audience find their own meaning, as long as they’re scared too.
FoodnFilm Rating - 8/10
Review by Dave Howarth