Editor’s note: It’s nearly impossible to write about Us sans spoilers, so I’m not going to try. If you haven’t seen it yet, go now and read this afterward.
You will walk out of Us with questions. It’s the perfect film for today’s hot-take society: the movie that launched a thousand explainers. And in many ways, the answers don’t matter. Jordan Peele wants you to ponder his work without any definitive solutions in sight. The real question is: What do you do with a well-made film that broaches important subjects but never quite comes together as a whole? Shower it with praise, or nitpick it just because you can?
Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke, doing his best Peele impression) have brought their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to Santa Cruz for a beach vacation. Adelaide has a history with the town, suffering a traumatic experience as a child where she saw what appeared to be her double in a house of mirrors. It turns out this encounter was legitimate, as Red (also Nyong'o) and her doppelgänger family emerge from underground tunnels to seek revenge. And it’s not just them; they’re part of a massive clone population called the Tethered who were raised below the surface. Cue the horror.
This is a complex backstory for a relatively simple movie, an approach with pros and cons. I usually love receiving only the tip of the iceberg story-wise; we don’t need every single detail to be properly captivated. Yet Peele goes a bit overboard, exposing just enough to prompt uncertainties we shouldn’t be worrying about. Do we have to know that the clones were part of a massive abandoned government experiment? Revealing that can be both illuminating and distracting; I appreciate the insight but it prompts six more inquiries, and then you’re deep in the rabbit hole while a movie is going on around you.
Luckily, Peele employed the perfect actress to keep his story afloat; Nyong'o proves phenomenal as both Adelaide and Red. It’s no surprise that an Academy Award-winning performer can knock a horror film out of the park, but Peele asks his leading lady to carry a ton of weight with both roles. She has to handle the bulk of the exposition, plus several cheesy lines that would be cringeworthy out of other mouths. Fortunately, Nyong'o brings both emotional depth and physicality to the parts, especially in the tremendous ballet-centric hallway scene near the end of the film. It’s a masterful performance and worthy of early awards buzz.
Though the film itself can be clunky and occasionally lack cohesion, Peele clearly has a lot to say about privilege. His thoughts are certainly tied to race but also to perception and assumptions; we decide—as individuals and as a society—that certain people belong in certain places and feel comforted by the finality of our decisions. In Us, these choices are somewhat out of the hands of individuals—the government created these clones in underground labs, we literally do not know they exist—but that in turn probes the idea of ignorance, willful or otherwise. Red’s “We are…Americans” line feels tailor-made to spark conversation—and very on the nose—but if people are suffering mere miles away from you, what is your responsibility to assist them? And how “evil” are they if they rise up against this clear inequity, even if it’s no direct fault of your own?
Which brings us to the twist: Adelaide and Red being switched as children, and Red maintaining some of her humanity as she leads the Tethered to the surface. Because Adelaide was born underground, and a “soul” was coaxed out of her through art and dance, Peele is implying that there’s hope for all of us at some point. But she was also the lucky one who reached the surface and found help at the appropriate age; if we don’t strike early, are people born into a monstrous system guaranteed to become monsters? And again, is that their fault or ours?
These are big questions, and Peele deserves praise for bringing them to light via a surprisingly popular horror film. But I do wonder if his audiences will ponder all this, or if they’ll just be dazzled by scares and some great acting. Peele is not a militant filmmaker, but he also isn’t shy. His two movies have very clearly been about prejudice and injustice, one with all the brilliance of a fully formed script from an emerging genius and the other an interesting mix of thoughts and ideas that maybe didn’t have enough time to marinate in his noggin.
I will say that it’s very fun to engage with, discuss, and review a Jordan Peele movie. It’s tough to untether him—ugh, sorry—from conversations about original storytelling, filmmakers of color, and unexpected box-office smashes, but that’s fine by me. For better or worse, that’s part of the process now; I don’t need a hundred Us FAQs but I do want filmmakers who create moments that get us talking. It’s only been two films, but few do that better than Peele.