In 1986 Ronald Reagan was the 40th president of the United States, ushering in a new era of haves and have-nots in America. In 2019 Donald Trump is the 45th president, and many of the have-nots have rallied behind his message predicated on comeuppance for their fellow countrymen, rather than the system that let them down. They want to build a wall. They want what’s theirs. Jordan Peele’s new film, Us, reveals the shadow world that the politics of our world reflect. In 1986, a little girl sees her mirror image in a carnival fun house. In present day, the mirror image, now complete with mirror family, comes back for blood, telling that same little girl, now an adult (an excellent Lupita Nyong’o): “we are Americans”. If the parallels appear oblique, rest assured that by the end of the film you’ll be able to see them, even if you can’t quite figure how they all line up together.
Aware that audiences were hungry for more of the sociopolitical commentary wrapped in the crowd-pleasing clothes of a horror film that Get Out (2017) provided, Peele is eager to get increasingly literal, and broad, with the mirror reflections of his latest social satire: building walls, red outfits, conspiracy theories, and religious fundamentalists, oh my! The fractured political landscape of the U.S. itself (Us, get it?) is the tableau for his latest horror film, and unfortunately that ambitious metaphor is as unwieldy as it sounds for a story that was first germinated from the sublime simplicity of The Twilight Zone.
Just as they did in Rod Serling’s hit show almost 60 years ago in the episode “Mirror Image”, mysterious doubles of ill-intent remain a reliable source of compelling cinema, and a good chunk of Us is just that. Backed by It Follows (2014) cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Jordan Peele mines a good deal of tension from the shadowy doppelgängers dropping into frame at unexpected moments, and the sustained suspense sequences that run throughout the film provide a more constant sense of tension and climax that was all too brief in his freshman debut. Still drawing from a smorgasbord of horror influences –most apparently The Twilight Zone, The Strangers (2008), and The Birds (1963)— the film works its best when it casts its many suspense set-pieces against the inexplicability of its premise. The all too clear tangibility of physical harm is put in stark relief with the existential dread of the “why?”, and as a result both are heightened. But unlike its influences, Us unfortunately proffers answers to questions that should have remained hidden behind the scenes of this cinematic carnival ride, and shining a spotlight on its somewhat tenuous metaphors.
While Us has a surer hand behind the camera and more visceral thrills than Get Out (although just as many moments of comedy that undercut the tension), it still feels like a lateral move, or even a step back, compared to Peele’s directorial debut. Get Out’s social satire fit perfectly with the demands of its thriller narrative, but in Us the pairing is is not so easy. By the end of the film, flashbacks, long doses of exposition (which no amount of split-diopter shots can make compelling), and obvious visual metaphors have fully cannibalized the tension that the genre constraints of the picture demand. I’m sure many thinkpieces will polish this particular social mirror to a sheen in order to play spot the difference, but I doubt that its visceral and emotional particulars will be extolled with equal fervor, or that–despite its many efforts–it will provide new pop-culture iconography, like the cup of tea and spoon from Get Out that has even become the centerpiece for the vanity plate of Peele’s own Monkeypaw Productions.
I’m still hopeful that his next film will be the one to show me that Peele is a new master of horror that some were eager to proclaim him after just one movie, but to do so he can’t fall victim to perhaps scariest villain of all to creatives: expectations. If Peele truly wishes to scare his audience, he would be wise to free himself from the burden of providing laughs where they need them, and answers where they want them. The unknown is where horror thrives, but Us turned out to be too much of a sure thing.