Moments after crimson-red clad doppelgangers invade an upper-middle-class home in Us, writer-director Jordan Peele’s fbrilliantly provocative follow-up to the Oscar-winning black comedy/social satire Get Out, they win a brief, futile struggle for control, taking a terrified nuclear family of four hostage. One of the children, frightened, shocked, and disoriented, flatly states, “They’re us.” Part of the genius of Peele’s follow-up to Get Out lies in that single word, in the doppelgangers, led by Red (Lupita Nyong’o), both looking exactly like their upper-middle-class counterparts, but sounding and acting nothing like them. They might share the same faces and forms, but there the resemblance ends. Their life experiences, material comfort, emotional support, and sunlight for Adelaide Wilson (Nyong’o) and her family, material deprivation, emotional absence, and the cold, unblinking lights of a literal subterranean existence for Red and her makeshift family, raise multiple specters in American cultural, political, and social life starkly defined by vast income inequality, white supremacy/racism, and a hollowed-out American Dream.
Before, however, we get to that pivotal home-invasion scene, Peele, an exceptionally gifted filmmaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (especially horror, including Funny Games, The Strangers, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) deliberately seeds Us with a steady stream of clues as to the underlying meaning – or more accurately, multiple, maybe even contradictory meanings – of his second feature-length film. An old-school, cathode-ray TV plays out a long-forgotten, feel-good, ultimately empty publicity stunt, “Hands Across America,” while nearby, a VHS copy of C.H.U.D., a mid-‘80s, low-budget horror shocker thematically tuned to Us’ socio-political commentary. A young girl, Adelaide (Madison Curry) pays little attention to the TV as her parents prepare for an evening at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. There, her father’s negligence, combined with her natural curiosity, leads her to a funhouse/hall of mirrors that proclaims visitors can “Find yourself.” Adelaide does, both literally and figuratively when she comes face-to-face with her silent double. When Adelaide returns – or rather found – she’s been so heavily traumatized that she can barely speak or interact with anyone.
That childhood trauma carries over into the adult Adelaide. Wary of returning to Santa Cruz or the boardwalk, she reluctantly agrees, in large part to go along to get along with her genial, even-tempered husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), her tween daughter, Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and her introspective, preteen son, Jason (Evan Alex). But where she sees signs and portents of her past fears and anxieties, her family blissfully sees nothing. When Jason disappears, wandering, like his mother more than thirty years earlier, away from his family and towards the funhouse, Adelaide panics. But again and again, she allows her family and the safety and security that her family represents, to calm her mind and ease her fears, an error Adelaide and her family pay for repeatedly when Red and her clan of grunting, animalistic proto-killers make their expected appearance.
Peele lingers on the small, everyday details of Adelaide and her family’s life, sketching out their divergent personalities in necessarily broad strokes, but also avoiding turning them into stereotypes or caricatures before Red and her clan invades their home. Post-home invasion, Adelaide and her family split and reform (they’re always stronger together), letting moviegoers see and how they’ll react to the life-or-death situations embodied by Red and her clan. For Adelaide, it’s her own personal apocalypse, but Peele, a bold, audacious, and ambitious filmmaker, isn’t content with spinning out another variation of the home-invasion thriller, with or without subtext. He’s just as willing to take a bigger, broader view, both expanding Adelaide and her family’s experience and the film’s objectives as well. The red crimson overalls Red and her clan wear are intentional, not institutional. They represent more than uniformity or conformity. They represent the blood they expect to shed, but also to subconsciously associate Red and her clan with rebellion and revolt. When Red, speaking in a choked, hoarse whisper, says, “We’re Americans,” she’s not wrong. What she fails to add is that Red and her clan represents the forgotten, the invisible, and the repressed (their revolt represents “the return of the repressed”).
There’s more too, of course. More story, more thematic material, more subtext, though early on Peele, a keen observer and commentator on the African-American experience, hints at the doppelgangers representing something else, the “imposter syndrome” many people of color experience when they, like Adelaide and her family, either escape the economic deprivation of their respective biological families, embracing the privilege that comes with middle-class and upper-middle-class status: They feel like the lives they live, the lives they’ve earned, aren’t really theirs. They belong to someone else, someone better, someone who deserves all of the objects and signifiers of material and social success. A key, second half plot turn, however, suggests that Peele might have something else entirely in mind – or something in addition to the “imposter syndrome” idea – for Us and it falls along the nature-nurture divide.
It’s obvious from their second encounter as adults that Red and Adelaide if body switched, would each lead the other’s life or an approximation. Biology isn’t destiny, but environment can be. Peele also suggests, however, that environments and the circumstances they represent, can be broken and shattered, but only through violent means, violent revolt. That we initially, subsequently, and repeatedly root for Adelaide and her family to escape Red’s clutches alive says something about narrative form and our implicit biases. We’ll root for the characters a story tells us to root for, the higher the class, the better the social standing and we won’t think twice about who to root for and how hard we root for them. By the end of Us, as the smoke clears on what, at best, can be seen as a partial victory, Peele wants moviegoers to closely question our loyalties and our allegiances. We just might not like the answers.