Scene one, hot take one: ‘Us’ shows horrors of haves, have-nots

Actress Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Adelaide in the new horror movie "Us" sits on a beach chair in the shade wearing a white shirt, sunglasses and a white baseball cap.
Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) sits on a beach in the movie “Us” (Courtesy: Evgeniy Gerasin via Vimeo)

This article contains mild spoilers.

Second films are hard, and for Jordan Peele, following up “Get Out” — a genuine cultural phenomenon — seemed like a nearly impossible task. Luckily, with “Us,” Peele created a phenomenal follow-up to his first feature, cementing himself as the most exciting voice in horror films today.  

“Us” follows the family of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph) as they travel to their beach house, only to be pursued by murderous replicas of themselves.

At their inherent core, horror films can be seen as depicting a fear of the oppressed rising against us (the viewers) and threatening our power in society. The oppressed usually takes the form of a monster that will stop at nothing to kill its oppressors. A famous example comes in John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” when the monstrous creature represented those attacked in the Red Scare, taking vengeance on Americana.

In “Us,” the oppressed take on the form of our physical selves, or more specifically, Americans.

Without spoiling too much of “Us,” the film’s metaphor — that Americans oppress other Americans — represents itself in a class struggle analogy between the protagonists and their doubles.

It is within this metaphor that both the film’s strongest and weakest aspects lie. Its exploration of class struggle results in what can only be described as a darkly comical parody of the bourgeois lifestyle. This black comedy aspect of the film’s morale is its strongest element and results in one of the most wickedly funny on-screen condemnations of the lifestyle of upper-middle class Americans, and how it is inherently built on suppression of the lower class.

Unfortunately, once the film’s third section begins and explains the origins of the doubles, in order to shift from horror-satire toward a morality tale, the metaphor begins to tremble under its own ambitions.

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The issue with Peele’s attempt to explain the origins of the murderous doubles is his half-measure approach. The film only partially explains the doubles’ background and their motives, leaving the audience to put the puzzle together.

Had Peele chosen to leave their origins completely open-ended, this idea of having the audience put their own reading onto the film’s message would have worked. Alternatively, if the film had incorporated in-depth details of the doppelgangers’ origins, it would have created a direct morale for the audience to glom onto.

However, because the backstory is only partially explained, it gives the viewer enough plot-hole ammo to poke holes into any reading they may have of the film, and does not present a workable and strong reading on its own.

Luckily, this Achilles heel is easily overlooked by the fantastic performances and exceptional craft that establish the film as a popcorn horror-comedy.

The biggest standout of these performers is Nyong’o, who plays two fully different characters in an exceptional manner. Her performance as the “hero” of the film, Adelaide, is monumental — she synthesizes the empathy of a mother with a sense of animalistic rage lying underneath.

Nyong’o’s performance as the film’s “villain,” Red, relies on a manipulation of her voice that cements Red into the canon of terrifying movie monsters à la Freddy and Jason. However, Nyong’o also brings layers of sadness to Red that give this film’s monster a sense of tragedy and depth.

Additionally, I would be remorse if I did not shout out Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker’s hilarious performances as a repulsive bourgeois couple that befriends the leads.

Ultimately though, the real star of the film is Peele’s direction, which exemplifies a mastery of tone and cinematic technique. Peele’s cinematic choices for the film’s horror are truly unsettling and create an atmosphere of tension, where the audience feels that the monster is truly waiting in the mirror. When this tension finally comes to fruition, Peele creates horror set pieces that rival those of John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

For every moment of terror, there are moments of uproarious dark comedy that are equally masterful, which provide a release for the film’s terror and allow the audience to immerse themselves in what is an ultimately ridiculous concept.

Peele’s meteoric rise from master of comedy to critically acclaimed director has resulted in many asking if he is the next Stanley Kubrick or Carpenter. While I believe that “Us” ultimately does not commit enough to transcend the genre, it is still a phenomenal popcorn horror-comedy.

4/5 stars

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Ben Hafetz PZ ’20 is a media studies and politics double major. He likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.

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