Jordan Peele has seen the enemy and it is “Us.” The director follows up his wildly popular and critically acclaimed “Get Out,” a horror movie with a socially conscious message, with another picture that mixes thrills – and more of them as “Us” is much creepier than its predecessor – with social commentary in a devilishly clever way.
Throughout the film, the characters frequently come across the numbers 11:11 – on a clock and on a sign held up by a doomsday type. In Jeremiah 11:11, it says, “Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.”
In “Us,” this disaster is one of our own making. The first shot of the film is of a TV set on which an advertisement for Hands Across America, a benefit event during which millions of Americans stood hand-in-hand in a human chain to raise awareness for homelessness. In the background are several VHS cassettes and, appropriately, one of them was the 1984 horror movie “C.H.U.D.,” a film about monstrous vagrants.
We then cut to an eerie sequence during which a young girl visits a theme park in Santa Cruz with her parents in 1986. After straying away from her parents, the girl, Adelaide, wanders into a seemingly abandoned hall of mirrors at a boardwalk fun park and has an unsettling experience, bumping into a girl who appears to be her doppelganger.
Years later, Adelaide (now played with aplomb by Lupita Nyong’o) is taking a family vacation with her jovial husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and two children – teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and shy Jason (Evan Alex), and she balks after Gabe suggests they take a trip to Santa Cruz to meet up with some friends played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. It’s clear that her childhood experience at the boardwalk has haunted her.
After spending a day at the beach, the family arrives home to find a creepy family clad in red and carrying large golden scissors casting shadows on their driveway. After Gabe fails to scare them away, “Us” turns into a tense home invasion thriller. Adelaide is horrified to realize that her doppelganger has returned to torment her, and she has an entire family in tow who look exactly like Gabe, Zora and Jason. Terror ensues.
During a scene in which Adelaide and her family are tied up, we start to get a hint of where Peele is going. Upon being questioned as to who they are, Adelaide’s doppelganger replies, “We’re Americans.” In the United States, much time is spent talking about who one should be afraid of – hordes of immigrants making their way to our borders, people on the other side of the political spectrum or people who look or think differently than the way we do. But, Peele is saying, the real enemy is us. We are our own worst enemies and the villains in the story.
It would take too much space to describe who this doppelganger family is. I’ll leave it at this: they’re known as the “tethered” and Adelaide’s family is far from the only one being terrorized by the time “Us” is all over. If the enemy is us, then the tethered could be seen as the forgotten of America, although their origin is the only part of the film that is slightly underdeveloped. At the film’s beginning, we are told that there are thousands of miles of unused tunnels underneath the ground in America, and this is seemingly the place from which the tethered have emerged. The picture ends with a shocking plot twist.
While the social commentary element of “Us” is a little more nebulous – but in a good way – than in “Get Out,” Peele’s sophomore film is much scarier. As much as I liked “Get Out,” it never gave me the chills as his latest did. Regardless, it’s clear that Peele is one of the most exciting new genre filmmakers. Those who loved “Get Out” and are fearful of being let down by “Us” can rest assured that the film simultaneously terrifies while providing sharp and resonant commentary on the collapsing state of our nation.