‘Us’ Holds Up a Mirror to Cultural Complacency, and the Likeness Is Just Plain Creepy

We can only believe any individual’s triumph is truly unlikely if the odds of success from an outsider’s perspective seem overwhelming or if our own generalized scope of said person does not contain any further conception beyond how we perceive them based upon limited previous evidence. The odds were never particularly against Jordan Peele with his first directorial effort Get Out, as his feature was financed by a company that prides itself on artistic freedom in spite of budgetary constraints and premiered in a time frame generally believed to be the box office doldrums – though that supposition has relatively gone to waste in the last few years. It would have been additionally reasonable to suggest name recognition, as well as the welcome surprise at one of the culture’s foremost funnymen directing a high-concept horror flick, would at least make Get Out a minor hit – not that a $5 million budget disregarding advertising expenditures would ever have been that difficult to clear in any scenario.

Yet, while Get Out’s finely crafted genre thrills and poignant, sharply tuned commentary about white liberal racism and the Black American experience were no doubt among the heavy lifters contributing to its continued stay at the peak of cultural relevance, perhaps it’s also because our collective perception of Peele was too limited for its own good. Between Get Out, his latest socially conscious shocker Us and CBS’s upcoming Twilight Zone revival (unfortunately only available through the network’s CBS All-Access streaming service), the foundation of Peele’s genre empire has been laid, and any supposition of this being an unlikely triumph feels more foolish with each passing project. And though it’s unfair to suspect and hope that Peele will forever exclusively craft creative, Twilight Zone-ish and thought-provoking genre works of cosmic weirdness (on a narrative level) and significance (on a broader cultural level), there isn’t any reason in not getting our hopes up. Call it unhealthy, but in reality (rather facetiously), it’s Us’s fault.

Call it even the trailer’s fault for fostering even higher expectations with the film’s seemingly simple, yet audacious premise of a doppelganger horror-cum-home invasion narrative. But pressure for Us to succeed didn’t solely rest upon the filmmaking and storytelling standards Peele set for himself after Get Out, amidst the usual subconscious fears of a sophomore slump without even circumstantial evidence; the genre’s history of films about doppelgangers or doubles sets its own standards of achievement and effectiveness. They’re bars Peele skillfully clears in spite of some occasionally wobbly storytelling, and for the most part, it’s due not necessarily to technical achievement provoking palpable frights from scene to scene once the story clears the inciting incident hurdle, but rather the broad, yet still incisive points wrought from the narrative, its particular progression and even the setting along with other mise-en-scene components.

Doppelganger films, at least in the context of genre cinema, are exclusively meant to hold a mirror up to society one way or another and through such intentions reveal a collective subconscious that deeply frightens us, much in the same way Lovecraftian notions of the unknown persist in our fears, and the effectiveness of these films often rides mostly upon the relevance of the ideas posed and how well they are communicated. Even as one in a wave of 1950s sci-fi B-movies, Don Siegel’s notorious Invasion of the Body Snatchers, arguably the most persistent tale of this subgenre given the number of times the source material has been re-adapted to fit each era’s primary cultural concerns, wasn’t just an incisive, if also retrospectively poisonous allegory for the spread of communism in America because the general populace had been incessantly programmed by media and prominent authority figures to fear the Red Menace out of reflex, but also because of an accepted, if also unspoken truth by many individuals that they might also be so easily vulnerable to its influence. Perhaps for our own sake, Peele’s contemplations are more esoteric, though also a hair more particular than the vague idea of fearing ourselves he has consistently advertised.

Aside from the obvious and requisite theme of duality, there’s a sense throughout Us that society has become disconnected with a romantic ideal of humanity through a reliance on modern comforts, alienating ourselves from our roots and certain morals in spite of superficial attempts to reconnect with said unrealistic romanticizing. Such manifests itself in the setting being a lakeside cabin (without working WiFi) not so distant from the pleasures of Santa Cruz, a popular summer beach and boardwalk destination (using the camping trip as escape from the urban jungle being an archetypal means of spiritual reconnection), as well as the inspired narrative presence of the 1986 Hands Across America charity event, whose missive was fighting against poverty, hunger and homelessness and is seen in flashbacks contextualizing Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) character as well as becoming its own visual motif. Revealing a deep cynicism toward society’s general complacency lurking underneath impulses to reconnect with incarnations of more world-conscious selves, even through the slightest of visual and plot-driven details, it may not be unfamiliar witnessing villains who imagine themselves this world’s moral superiors, but it’s still intriguing watching a collective set of villains whose ideals are somewhat empathetic.

To be fair, such isn’t a new narrative concept, either, but it nevertheless loops back around to what is a pretty convincing and universal unconscious fear of ourselves and each other; that we aren’t keeping in touch with the social ideals we cherish or the moral standards we set for ourselves like we ought to, and that any attempt to do so is more a selfish, half-hearted gesture expected by social pressures. Additionally, in this particular climate and rhetoric of bettering our societies in the wake of external threats and self-inflicted wounds, it’s rather fascinating watching a film in which our ideal selves are the beings hell bent on destroying and replacing us, granting new cosmic horror to the idea that we are our own monsters. On another note, one could suggest there’s even a minor, yet no less significant thematic undercurrent regarding the powers lent by art and creativity as positive means of communication when language fails us (though that’s a topic for another day).

Of course, the overall effectiveness of these ideas relies upon the quality of storytelling, and even through a second act that could arguably use some fat trimmed, Peele and Co. make it work with some astute pacing. Through some divisions in setting and perspective in addition to the immediacy of infrequently visceral filmmaking technique lending an authentic creepiness if not pure terror, Us travels through its course with maximum efficiency in mind while creating space for the signifiers of its contemplative intentions to flourish without intruding upon the plot. As much as the second act contains most of the film’s weaker points, it’s also arguably where it most shines and allows itself to be a relatively immersive experience tapping into primal anxieties. Often times, though, with a persistence in appropriating, yet disguising doppelganger narrative tropes dictating story progression, one might just as easily call to mind similar experiences while trying to masochistically enjoy this one.

These issues unfortunately, if only briefly, arise in the final act, as well, specifically in the form of a questionably necessary twist (possibly with something to say on circumstance’s effect on personality?) and an awkwardly handled exposition dump unnecessarily stifling the pace Peele and Co. establish, as well as perhaps unintentionally unraveling the sense of mystery while meaning to build upon its legitimately frightening mythology, which manifests itself in some shudder-worthy visuals that includes a final shot meant to carry some heavy impact. None of this partially formulaic nature makes the film feel any less unique, certainly, as the concept’s execution and set pieces themselves are proof positive of Peele’s genre-passionate eye for the provocative, especially when anchored by a stellar, unnerving turn from Nyong’o, Michael Abels’s score and the occasional moment of dry gallows humor punctuating the horror. Nonetheless, whether it be a disruptive music sting, misplaced moment of comedy or overly transparent dog whistle tipping us toward a philosophy already made apparent by the moments themselves, you can’t escape the sense that maybe Peele occasionally overplays his hand.

And yet because of overall solid execution backing up those good intentions, as well as Peele evidently being a singular voice genre cinema hasn’t had many of in Hollywood, enjoying Us never feels as though you’re granting anyone or anything involved the benefit of the doubt. For Peele and Co. as well as us as audience members, it represents an infectious curiosity as to what horror can be, and especially how the simplest of twists upon established genres and concepts can even unconsciously reveal greater depths without the need for explicit messaging. Thinking long and hard about the film in this case may not quite be a sufficient reason to consider adding an arbitrary half star to an already arbitrary rating, but it’s plenty intangible evidence to add to the exponential wall of praise calling this one of the better films to come out so far this year. Cleverly, one of the film’s taglines is the double entendre ‘Watch yourself,’ and though watching ourselves in this case means confronting ourselves and our inner evils as part of a pessimistic viewpoint, Peele nevertheless effectively warns us not to become what we see.

3.5/5

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