Uncanny and unsettling
Following the enormous success of his 2017 film Get Out, for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Jordan Peele is back in the cinema with Us. For both films Peele is an auteur (writing, producing and directing), but he leaves the acting to others. Lupita Nyong’o heads up the cast as Adelaide Wilson, and Winston Duke (last seen in Black Panther) is her husband Gabe. With their kids Zora and Jason, they’re a picture-perfect, all-American family.
The film starts some thirty years earlier, with a stunning scene set in 1986. The young Adelaide (Madelaine Curry) is at a boardwalk fun fair with her warring parents. Adelaide wanders off towards the beach by herself. The tension is almost unbearable, as we know something bad is going to happen. As indeed it does – but quite what it was, and its ultimate significance, remain unspecified for most of the film. So good is this scene that most of what follows cannot quite match the level of tension, although there are plenty of scares and morbid humour to be had, and a lot of (15 certificate) gore.
Back in the present, the foursome settle in to their summer home in Santa Cruz. Adelaide starts seeing uncanny and unsettling coincidences, and becomes convinced that her family should return home. But it’s too late. Another family of four arrive in the dead of night, dressed in red jump suits and wielding sharp scissors. They are physically the Wilson’s doppelgängers, but emotionally and intellectually: that’s another question.
The film doesn’t dwell on the psychology of meeting one’s doppelgänger, although that’s understandable when they’re rushing at you with sharp implements. The doppelgängers are of a more allegorical nature. Peele is interested in the symbiotic relationship between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in rampant capitalism, be it in America’s slave past or gadget-sodden present. The dehumanising effects of poverty of environment are a version of the nature/nurture debate, the importance of which only becomes evident in the final scene. I was especially reminded of Harlow’s cruel maternal bonding experiments with monkeys, and that the devices in which they were placed were referred to as the ‘pit of despair’. Peele is also interested in what we remember, and what is forgotten, with forgetting sometimes being the only strategy for survival.
The performances are all excellent, although ultimately this is Lupita Nyong’o’s film, who seems like a different person when playing her doppelgänger. Us is an entertaining, roller coaster watch which lingers in the mind.
- Reviewed by Kate Johnstone, Associate Editor for Culture
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