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Mirror image

‘Us’ is a horrifying funhouse reflection of American life



Evan Alex in “Us”

In just a matter of two films, writer-director Jordan Peele has accomplished a rare feat, transforming seemingly overnight into one of the country’s most original storytellers. With “Us,” his highly-anticipated follow up to the Oscar-winning “Get Out,” Peele has not only made good on the promise of his debut, he has proven to be a cunning and shrewd craftsperson with boundless potential. In just its opening weeks, “Us”—like “Get Out”—has become a bona-fide cultural
phenomenon.

The film opens with a benign living room scene featuring an old TV, strategically-placed spines of VHS cassettes of schlocky 80s films (“C.H.U.D.” and “The Man With Two Brains” stand out) and a corny TV ad for “Hands Across America”—a national campaign to fight hunger and homelessness. It feels like a brief preamble but here Peele presents the entire exegesis for what’s to come. We’re then introduced to young Adelaide—a quiet, only child whose parents are distracted by their constant bickering while vacationing at a sunny beachside amusement park. Adelaide disappears into a funhouse where she encounters and is traumatized by a doppelgänger.

In present day, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) lives a seemingly idyllic life. She has a doting husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children—Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The family is a living embodiment of a lifestyle magazine ad featuring a modern middle-class family with means.

However, time at their vacation home—complete with bourgeois friends (Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their bratty kids—is no slice-of-heaven for Adelaide. Once the Wilsons arrive, memories of Adelaide’s encounter soon come back to haunt her—a fear realized by the arrival of said doppelgänger, Red, and her family. To the Wilsons’ horror, the intruders are their mirror images, except the doppelgängers are decked out in red jumpsuits wielding gilded scissors.

Nyong’o and cast pull double duty playing their doppelgängers with delicious menace and the ensuing confrontation makes for a highly thrilling and satisfying horror film. Peele nimbly packs this film with suspense, well-timed humor, and even more visual metaphor than his previous outing, accomplishing a rare feat in horror—sparking national conversation.

Is “Us” a film about economic disparity in the U.S.; the duality of identity and self-reinvention; a comment on how you can never quite escape your former persona? Is it about America? Capitalism? Processing historical trauma? Quite possibly, yes, and more. Peele said “Us” is a Rorschach for both his influences and his collective fears and anxieties, which make it such a rich, complex film that rewards multiple viewings.

While each frame is packed with cinematic references and big ideas, it is also a little shaggy and carries an ending that feels a little too rushed with a slightly unearned ambiguity, showing a hint of the unsteady footing of a sophomore follow-up. Of course, horror is hardly the medium for air-tight logic, and rarely do our fears reflect any such process. With “Us,” Peele turns the mirror not only on himself but toward us, showing America the often-horrifying reflection staring back.

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