Early in Gaspar Noé’s recent feature Climax, the notorious French provocateur literally puts his cinematic influences on display. On an old-school CRT television, ambitious young dancers speak frankly of their hopes and dreams in snippets plucked from a series of Real World-style audition tapes, ca. 1996. However, the viewer’s eye is irresistibly drawn to what lies outside the TV screen: stacks of VHS tapes, each emblazoned with a title that signals one of Noé’s inspirations. In contrast to the MTV français banalities on display in the interview footage, these titles comprise a catalog of turmoil, terror, and transgression: “Un Chien Andalou” (1929); Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975); Suspiria (1977); Zombi 2 (1979); Possession (1980); Angst (1983); and numerous others. Before the narrative proper has even begun, Noé cheekily establishes a tension between the canned positivity that his characters project and the sordid madness that lurks at the film’s periphery, waiting to pounce.
In what can only be presumed to be uncanny meta-cinema coincidence, writer-director Jordan Peele uses an almost identical device in the prologue to his eagerly anticipated sophomore feature, Us. On a living-room television, retro commercials establish the year as 1986. The content of those advertisements will prove to be significant to the film’s plot, but, once again, it’s the surrounding production design that ensnares the viewer’s attention. Arranged on the entertainment center shelves are video cassettes that include The Right Stuff (1983), The Goonies (1985), and – most salient to the story and themes of Us – Douglas Cheek’s cult horror-satire C.H.U.D. (1984). Elsewhere, Peele drops in overt references to Jaws (1975), Home Alone (1991), and John Landis’ legendary music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983). Subtler allusions abound to The Shining (1980), The Lost Boys (1987), Funny Games (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999), and “New French Extremity” landmarks like Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008).
Peele is effusive and unapologetic about his cinephilia, which tends to skew post-Jaws, and about the way that his personal obsessions have aided his rapid ascent to contemporary genre filmmaking’s highest ranks. Considering the director’s avowed fanboyish inclinations, what’s most impressive about Peele’s features – in his galvanic Oscar-winning debut Get Out (2017) and now in Us – is that they never scan as hollow indices of cinematic references, or even as reverent homages. They are ferociously original nightmares: built on a scaffolding of cult-horror fandom and blockbuster (and Blockbuster) history, but conveying a cynical, fractured, and morbidly hilarious spin on the American experience.
Apart from its sheer craft, Get Out resonated to a great degree because of the perceived novelty of is vision and voice. It was certainly not the first instance in which an African-American artist transmuted deeply felt African-American anxieties into cinematic horror, but it was arguably the most mainstream feature to do so in such a piercing fashion. (Rusty Cundieff’s unexpectedly provocative Tales from the Hood achieves a similar trenchancy, but that 1995 anthology remains something of an underseen curio, especially among white horror aficionados.) Us doesn’t have Get Out’s frank post-Obama racial acerbity, although being a horror feature by a black filmmaker with a black lead cast, it unsurprisingly includes some incisive racial subtext. However, the new film does share with Peele’s debut a daft and profoundly pessimistic view of America. Both features have sci-fi-flavored backstories that are logistically ludicrous, but also oddly credible from a cultural and psychological angle. With the caveat that sweeping metaphors about auteurs based on just two films are always provisional, Peele’s features are like the faerie changelings swapped for human infants in folk tales. They aren’t perfectly accurate reflections of reality, but their horror stems from their slantwise resemblance to reality, from the deep cuts inflicted by their perverse exaggerations.
Us is itself proximally rooted in this terror of uncanny resemblance. It is part of a rich tradition of doppelgänger horror that encompasses works ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to Sisters (1973) to Enemy (2013). (To say nothing of the prevalence of twins, doubles, and fetches in Vertigo , Persona , Lost Highway , and many other macabre masterworks from a variety of genres.) If there is a direct antecedent to Peele’s latest film, however, it is – by the director's own admission – the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image,” in which Vera Miles portrays a woman haunted by a double who mimics her movements. Unlike many episodes in Rod Serling’s classic series, “Mirror Image” is enigmatic rather than heavy-handed, but it shares with Peele’s more explicitly allegorical film the motifs of malicious replacement and imitative action. Us also possess a certain wry, high-concept audacity that feels of a piece with The Twilight Zone – although tonally the film is closer kin to Serling’s sister anthology series Night Gallery and George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside. To this, Peele adds the apocalyptic elements of modern zombie fiction, and the result is a story that feels equal parts resonant, fascinating, and preposterous.
In the film’s 1986-set prologue, a little girl who is eventually revealed to be Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) visits the Santa Cruz, Calif., boardwalk with her mother and father (Anna Diop and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Quarrelsome and distracted, Adelaide’s parents do not notice when she wanders away to the beach, and then into an apparently deserted hall-of-mirrors attraction. Inside, she encounters another little girl who appears to be her exact double – down to the “Thriller” T-shirt her father just won for her at a carnival game. Peele does not show exactly what befalls little Adelaide when she encounters this doppelgänger, but it’s clear that the incident is disturbing and traumatic, driving the girl’s parents further apart and necessitating therapy under the guidance of a child psychologist (Napiera Groves). The doctor suggests creative expression as a means for Adelaide to process her repressed trauma, and it is ultimately ballet that ends up sustaining the girl through the ensuing years.
However, the past is not so easily buried. Now married to good-natured goofball Gabe (Winston Duke) and a mother to adolescent Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and preteen Jason (Evan Alex), the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is presently uneasy about a family holiday to Santa Cruz. Her parents have passed away, and her former childhood home now serves as a seasonal vacation residence for her family. However, that inexplicable funhouse encounter so long ago continues to haunt Adelaide, and she is accordingly alarmed when Gabe suggests a visit to the boardwalk. She reluctantly agrees out of deference to her husband’s pleas and politeness to their wealthier white friends, the Tylers: Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), Josh (Tim Heidecker), and twin girls Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide remains on edge, a state exacerbated by a succession of weird omens: eerily familiar faces, portentous numbers, and unlikely synchronicities.
After a brief scare on the beach – Jason wanders away, sending Adelaide into a panic – the family hastily returns to the summer house. Later that night, they make an unnerving discovery: A mysterious family of four is standing in their driveway, mute and motionless. Clad identically in red jumpsuits, sandals, and right-hand leather gloves, these figures seem creepy rather than overtly dangerous – at least until Gabe puts on his alpha-papa pants and threatens them. Whereupon the interlopers abruptly burst into the house and hold the Wilsons hostage in their living room, menacing them with large, golden pairs of scissors. It’s at this point that the baffling reality of the situation becomes apparent: The invaders are the Wilsons’ doppelgängers, each one a twisted reflection of a family member. (The film’s performers play both the originals and the doubles.)
Grunting, wailing, and chittering like animals, the doubles don’t speak, save for Adelaide’s twin, Red. In a croaking, wheezing voice that seems comical at first – before slowly mutating into terrifying – Red explains her history in halting, fairy-tale terms. She describes herself as a pitiable shadow, forced to crawl in the darkness below while her twin walked in the light. When Adelaide married Gabe and gave birth to Zora and Jason, Red was obliged to couple with Abraham and to spawn Umbrae and Pluto. The doppelgängers are damned to be puppets, insipidly miming the actions of their counterparts but lacking any agency of their own. Now, however, things have changed: Red speaks of an “Untethering,” an uprising in which the doubles will sever this one-way spiritual connection – by killing their originals. Fortunately, Red is feeling generous, in a sadistic sort of way: The Wilsons will be given a sporting chance to fight back.
So begins a run-and-gun waking nightmare in which the Wilsons pair off to confront their malevolent doubles, only to regroup and spilt up again as the evening’s horrors unfold. Over the next 24 hours or so, the full, shocking extent of the Untethering – which goes way, way beyond one family – becomes dreadfully apparent. However, the bedrock survival-horror aspects of Us remain consistent, even as the science-fiction strangeness spirals into some truly outlandish, hallucinatory territory. The same could be said of Get Out, to an extent. If that film has a nagging flaw, it’s the third-act indulgence of stock Blumhouse survival-horror beats, in contrast to the novelty of the film’s tone and social critiques. Still, Peele’s debut had its share of memorable images and motifs – that clinking teaspoon! – and Us turns that facility for indelible visuals up to 11.
The director and production designer Ruth De Jong deliver a disorienting combination of the familiar and the surreal. It’s an approach that eschews digital unreality for a dreamlike eccentricity that shades into Kubrick and Tarkovsky without ever ditching its multiplex flash. At one point, Adelaide stumbles her way into a secret underground corridor, tiled in institutional white and swarming with live rabbits. Within the bounds of the film’s universe, there is a sort-of explanation for this place, but the imagery has less to do with plausibility than with evoking the sinister and the uncanny. The efforts of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who lensed It Follows (2014) and the recent Glass, are less consistent. He and Peele make cunning use of shallow focus, wide shots, and split-diopter effects, finding novel ways to convey familiar horror situations. The lighting in some scenes works splendidly – the eerie, slightly greasy blues of the funhouse sequences are pure black magic – but elsewhere Gioulakis leans artlessly on shadowy murk that is more obscuring than atmospheric.
Us is every inch a sophomore feature: ambitious, inspired, and at times ungainly. Scene to scene, the film doesn’t click together quite as well Get Out. This is partly because the writer-director is here committed to a more eccentric mythology, and as a result the new film isn’t as structurally disciplined or self-contained. (Story-wise, the entirety of Get Out is analogous to the first act in Us.) Editor Nicholas Monsour, who cut the Peele-co-scripted comedy Keanu (2016), also makes his share of missteps. There are some wonderfully assembled sequences in Us – including a climactic hand-to-hand duel that is spectacularly cross-cut with two different ballet routines – but also some distractingly jarring scene transitions.
The supporting performances are all solid, particularly Duke as a dorky middle-class dad who is a little insecure about his second-in-command standing, albeit in the mildest and most endearing way. Moss gets the opportunity to play against type as a vapid, prickly, faintly dissatisfied suburbanite, the sort of woman who says “vodka o’clock” unironically. However, the film unambiguously belongs to N’yongo, who essentially fills both the lead protagonist and the lead antagoist roles. Initially, Peele’s screenplay doesn’t afford Adelaide much of an interior life beyond her bottled-up trauma – which comes spurting out in tearful gouts once the doppelgängers appear – and her generic Mama Bear protectiveness, but N’yongo sells those with every ounce of her being. Eventually, as the film’s backstory comes into sharper focus and the final twists snap into place, Adelaide (and Red) become much more intriguing characters. Like The Sixth Sense, Oldboy (2003), and Shutter Island (2010), it’s the sort of film that will reward multiple viewings, demanding close attention to the nuances of the lead actor’s performance.
Considering Get Out’s success as both a mainstream box-office hit and a seismic force in the cultural conversation, it’s perhaps inevitable that some viewers are going to walk away baffled and disappointed by Us. It’s certainly weirder, clumsier, and cagier than Peele’s directorial debut. It also feels somehow less urgent and less pointed, its metaphorical meanings more expansive and open to interpretation. Granted, threads of racial consciousness are undeniably woven into Us. They can be discerned in the film's sensitivity to the way that racist inclinations can be concealed but not eliminated by a veneer of political correctness, or the way that the white bourgeoisie subtly bigfoot their aspirational black counterparts. However, Peele’s latest is just as concerned with class, labor, violence, and ignorance as it is with race, not to mention more personal, psychological themes such as trauma and guilt. Lest any viewer think that the director has blunted his blade now that he has an Oscar on his shelf, Red underlines the wokeness that lurks beneath Peele’s midnight-movie gleefulness. When asked who she and her fellow doppelgängers are, she replies with a rictus grin: “We’re Americans.”