By: Michael Rodgers
Iconographic imagery is a cornerstone facet of the horror genre. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 classic film Silence of the Lambs immediately conjures up images of Hannibal Lecter sporting that copper toned, anti-cannibal muzzle on his face, or the terrified facial contortions of Clarice as she blindly traverses the basement of a serial killer’s house whilst enveloped in the effulgent green glow of night vision goggles. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is filled with iconographic imagery: the multiple shots of twins, the bloody rapids violently surging through the hallway, Jack Torrance seething “Here’s Jonny!” while his distraught, knife-clutching wife frantically cowers in the corner.
Jordan Peele is no stranger to this notion of iconography being paramount in the genre of horror, as his 2017 film Get Out artfully deploys a myriad of subtle homages to the horror films of his childhood. Peele’s grasp of the importance of iconic imagery in the horror genre is precisely the reason Get Out is considered an overwhelming masterpiece; It’s also why his 2019 sophomore film Us is a substantially provocative, rapturous endeavor, if not slightly oversaturated.
Us follows the Wilsons, a modern American family of four as they embark to Santa Cruz for a relaxing summer vacation at their cozy beach house. The family is mostly a cliché, fit with a dorky dad (Winston Duke), a high-school athlete daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and a devious yet lovable adolescent son (Evan Alex), but the cliché ends at the mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) who is... a little off. She is more than a little paranoid about the idea of returning to a place that once caused her significant trauma as a child. There is a flashback sequence from 1986 that depicts Adelaide as a young girl (portrayed by Madison Curry) who gets lost at the Santa Cruz pier while her parents are bickering about something trivial. She wanders into a desolate fun-house mirror attraction with the ominous subtitle “find yourself," and that’s exactly what young Adelaide does. She harrowingly happens upon a doppelganger of herself, identical from head to toe, staring back at her.
The audience is led to believe that she flees this scene in terror, confirmed as much by the post-trauma car ride she has with her distraught parents. Adult Adelaide vehemently vetoes the beach trip, but her protests are withered away by her kind-hearted, thick-skulled husband. The film escalates quickly from there, in no time we are caught up in the revolution of a bunch of underground Marxist doppelgangers, rising from the depths below to supplant their above-ground selves as the rightful inhabitants of the surface world. These barbarous copies don bright red jumpsuits, and their weapon of choice is a pair of golden scissors that could probably cut through bone. They communicate mostly through spastic oral clicking and guttural moans. The film is steeped in traditional slasher story territory with a dash of philosophical contemplation on mind-body dualism, and of course Peele makes sure we have a few "lolz" along the way.
Us is ripe for interpretation: it could be viewed as a story about the dualistic nature of American life and how those of us who have it good are a lot closer to becoming “the other” than we think, or possibly a thoughtful examination on how trauma can be inextricably linked to who we are at our core. But more pertinently, Us is a jubilant slasher film that isn’t really meant to be endlessly excavated for revelatory meaning. Us is at its best when it’s not trying to weave faux-deep sci-fi ideals into the shaky foundation of a semi-coherent overarching treatise on capitalism at large, but rather when it goes for broke and attempts to create something truly sublime.
Peele’s key vessel for purporting these bold attempts at legend status is his enigmatic lead actress Lupita Nyong’o, who delivers an indelible performance that ranges from devastating mania to voyeuristic sadism. She is truly undeniable. Without revealing too much, Nyong’o essentially plays the main villain and the heroine, and her work at both ends is worthy of the highest praise. The amount of “stuff” she is doing as her villainous character “Red” could come off as corny and ridiculous if not for the irrefutable poise that Nyong’o possesses as an actress. Without her, I honestly believe this film could have been woefully schlocky and trite, but her ability to evoke fear with a simple glance carries the audience over the logically rockier portions of the film. Another brilliantly insane performance--and my favorite?--is the one put forth by Elisabeth Moss. She is outrageous in her portrayal of her doppelganger, and her ability to instill profound fear while doing something as dainty and routine as applying lip-gloss is an awesome happening to behold.
I’d rather not dive into what didn’t work for me here (the over-explained ending) and instead focus on what aspects of this audacious film will endure. The entire concept of Nyong’o’s character “Red," from her radioactive chuckle to her spasmodic way of speaking, will be seared into the collective cultural conscious and surely be considered a foundational horror performance for years to come. The blood-red jumpsuits, the gold scissors, the impeccable score, and the haunting concept of a vengeful doppelganger set out to murder you and take your place are all guaranteed their spot in the horror hall of fame.
The formal innovations at play here are also exceptional, Peele not only utilizes and subverts traditional horror tropes, but he takes bits and pieces from the dramatic masters as well. Peele’s use of deep focus techniques to create an ominous sense of space and depth throughout the film, and I couldn’t help but notice, doppelganger like shots when compared with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This is not to say that Peele copies Welles in a plagiaristic manner, but rather it comes off as homage and reverence in the best kind of way because Peele is a master in his own right and deploys these techniques with the utmost grace. My only critique of Peele constantly attempting to create something visionary here is that it sometimes comes off as lacking in focus, as if he is just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and hoping some of it sticks. Now don’t misunderstand me. A LOT sticks; in fact, most of it does, but if I had to say why this film falls short of Get Out in stature for me, it would be this lack of focus.
Then again, maybe if Peele had been more focused and refined in his narrative and formal approach, we might not be gifted with such a joyous, rebellious film. Us is free and unhinged, and that is what is to be valued here. It is a blessing to be given something so venturesome amidst a film culture that further and further values algorithmic precision over originality; and for that reason, I welcome this daring film with open arms.