When the credits rolled on Us, I realized I needed a minute.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like the film – quite the opposite. It was that the film, written and directed by Jordan Peele, is so rich, so layered, so diabolically clever and emotionally astute, that it felt an enormous undertaking to process in a single sitting.
Several hours and many conversations later, I’m still convinced this film has secrets I haven’t uncovered yet, and I’m just eager for my next chance to go digging through it again.
Which is not to say it’s without surface-level pleasures. Moment to moment, Us is a film designed to make you react – to get you to giggle at Winston Duke’s extreme dad-ness (“You don’t need the internet. You have the outernet!” he tells his exasperated teenage daughter), or scream at a villain silently materializing in the corner of a frame. And it shapeshifts so frequently, and so deftly, that it’s a fool’s errand to guess at any moment what might happen next.
But it quickly becomes obvious that Us has a lot more on its mind than making you jump. Every detail here seems carefully considered, down to the amount of dust gathered on a coffee table in a rarely used living room. In the hands of a filmmaker this precise, much of the fun is in waiting to see just how his intricate puzzle will come together.
Duke, Lupita Nyong’o, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex are instantly winning as the Wilson family, whose beach vacation is cruelly interrupted by funhouse-mirror versions of themselves. These strangers – clad in blood-red jumpsuits and armed with gleaming gold scissors – are hell-bent not just on killing them, but on explaining exactly why they’re doing so.
Each star of Us also plays their own warped double, but across the board, the transformations are so dramatic that it’s easy to forget. I had to keep reminding myself that, for instance, the blank-eyed brute scowling down at a terrified Duke was, in fact, also Duke. Even as I told myself this, I couldn’t quite believe it.
Lupita Nyong’o bears most of the story’s emotional burden, with astonishing versatility and force.
It is Nyong’o, however, who bears most of the story’s emotional burden, and she does so with astonishing versatility and force, employing what must be every single bone and muscle in her body. It becomes impossible to separate oneself from whatever she’s feeling at any given moment, whether it’s brittle panic or all-consuming fury. Her very soul seems to become our own for the duration of the movie.
Her assuredness, and Peele’s, keep Us on an even keel as it winds through different tones and modes and influences. It’s a home invasion thriller and a social commentary, with the graceful timing of a veteran comic. It might be an ancient fairy tale made new, or a modern legend made timeless. Or maybe none of those descriptions are quite fair, since above all, Us just feels like itself.
To say too much about what it all might mean would be to reveal too many of the twists and turns. In any case, being shocked in the moment, sitting with it afterward, arguing its finer points with friends, and figuring out when you can re-watch it already, are all part of the experience.
Suffice it to say there is real anguish here, and not always from the obvious directions. That pain, even more than the terror of shadowy doubles lurking around every corner, is what has haunted me since I saw the film.
But I’m still going to sleep with the lights on, lest I die of fright after catching my own dark reflection in a mirror.
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