We are the Shadows of Us
Jordan Peele’s new film is a studied and worthy addition to the horror canon.
Us is the world’s most frightening Rorschach test. Its densely symbolic, open-ended nature allows for a myriad of readings all of which indicate more about the film’s viewers than about the film itself. The plot is simple enough: while on vacation in Santa Cruz the Wilson family is attacked by a set of nightmarish doppelgängers and must either escape or suffer death and mutilation at the hands of these murderous, scissor wielding maniacs. What these doppelgängers — the Tethered — represent is a topic sure to generate millions of online think pieces. Are they the Jungian shadow, a manifestation of the repressed dark side in all of us? A symbol of the have-nots bent on destruction of the socioeconomically privileged in a system of gaping inequality? A macabre metaphor of America’s racial history? Perhaps a cautionary tale about the destructive folly born of revolution? Or is it all about American self-imposed amnesia in response to historical atrocity? The list of interpretations goes on and on like an exegetical Hands Across America. In the end, however, the only question that must be asked of Us is whether or not it succeeds as a horror film. The answer is a qualified yes.
There is a lot that works in Us. Most of its success is due to director Jordan Peele’s obvious, sincere, and deep cinephilia. The man knows cinema. In particular he knows the horror genre. He understands that the true terror of horror films comes not from facile jump scares but, rather, from the evocation of unease by means of the presentation of aberrant image and sound.
Take, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a film clearly influential in Peele’s work. The most horrific aspect of The Shining is not the abrupt appearance of an axe wielding Jack Torrance. The most horrifying part is actually the slow and methodical revealing of the the Grady twins. The Grady twins are something just shy of human, uncanny valleys of ghastliness. Their stony silence and awkward movement create an acute sense of unease in the viewer, something is just not right about them, and this unease lingers in the mind like some phantom grotesquerie.
Us is full of such unintelligible deviations from normalcy that disturb the mind as much as they do the conventions of the horror genre itself. The Tethered, for example, lack eyebrows. They grunt and howl rather than speak. They also move abnormally. The Wilson son’s counterpart, for instance, pounces like an attacking canine. Finally, the most effective shot in the film is a tracking shot of Zora, the Wilson’s daughter, as, golf club in hand, she searches for the Tethered. The tracking shot eventually offers a shocking subversion of expectation when, instead of revealing the menacing face of the Tethered in the background, it presents instead a lurking pair of feet raised high in the air behind Zora. When the Tethered then gymnastically leaps out in attack the viewer is already primed for fright because of the unease born of its outlandish initial handstand positioning.
All of this, the entire film actually, is captured in a well-orchestrated high formalism. Peele has a preference for long shots over quick cuts and he populates each frame with reams of menacing shadow and fluid movement. The balletic final fight sequence between our protagonist, Adelaide, and her Tethered shadow, Red, is particularly effective and aesthetically pleasing.
The acting performances also rise above what audiences are accustomed to in a horror movie. Lupita Nyong’o is great as both Adelaide and Red. Winston Duke is a hulking dad joke of a man when playing the role of Gabriel, the family patriarch, and a terrifying Frankenstein when occupying Abraham, Gabriel’s Tethered parallel. Duke’s is actually my favorite performance in the film. He provides both comic relief and panicked distress. It must have been great fun to play these characters.
Us’s acting performances, artful presentation, and execution of effective horror technique is what makes the film a success. It’s failures are equally varied though less in number.
While Us is a good film it is far from a great film and it is certainly a film that is overrated given the superlative praise it enjoys from its gushing critics. This makes watching the movie somewhat of a disappointment because there is a gap between expectations and reality. This isn’t the film’s fault, of course. Where Us does err is in its third act when it steers into the pedantic as it explains the Tethered and their revolution. The result is a somewhat muddled finale. It’s as if Peele has allowed the film’s messaging to interfere with the storytelling.
In the end, however, Us is a compelling horror film deserving of its box office success. If you’re looking for a good fright night you could do much worse. So throw a few fives on it and get yourself a ticket if you haven’t already.