From black, the swooshing sound of waves piling on each other and crashing into rocks has laid the grimy tracks of horror. Someone, like myself, was probably in their seat playing mental gymnastics when an ominous quote emerged on the screen, stating that thousands of tunnels have been abandoned – some with no purpose. How would this relate to the infamous “I Got Five on It” trailer? Or the opening credits featuring a wall of rabbits that forces you to hold tight because the truth would be revealed momentarily? If director Jordan Peele could prove anything – it’s that he could have the mind wandering about his nightmare projects before, during, and after they set eyes on it.
But this is a feat that cannot be done single-handedly by Peele, as the road to horror begins with a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) that wanders the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop). The first introduction to suspense is played so subtlety – young Adelaide only speaks when spoken to, her father is a drunk, her mother reserves her frustrations to stoniness. Family tension could be horrifying, especially when you’re young enough to have it haunt you in your adult years. Because in truth, Adelaide walks the boardwalk staring up at giants that have a negative hand in her fate. Like Snow White. She has an apple that’s blood red, her mother disappears, and her father is abusive, dazed by alcohol and his own narcissistic needs. Venturing away from her abuser, Adelaide journeys into the unknown with a bolt of thunder striking the bulky clouds (which is probably the best image from this film). Again, like White, the apple drops when she succumbs to her fate: she’s lost. The beach and fun house is reminiscent of the haunting forest Snow White travels through before she encounters the dwarfs…
In the present, an adult Adelaide, now played by Lupita Nyong’o, is married with two children and haunted by that pier. And this fear will put her family Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and Jason (Evan Alex) in a questionable situation. The Wilson family has captured strong performances, but it is Nyong’o that is an entirely different beast with her performance. Fear crawls out of her pores, her doe eyes are stricken red, and the layers of blood transitions her clothes as she delves further down and down into the rabbit hole. Adelaide is not a typical horror heroine that reacts to the monsters around her. She’s a catalyst – she prepares audiences for the unimaginable and the hook that sold us on the film: doppelgangers. When Adelaide sits Gabe down to explain her traumatic encounter in the funhouse, it’s as if her words were called into the universe. The cast has a lot of wiggle room to work with by portraying their antagonist, themselves, the doppelgangers: “The Tethered.” Identical to the Wilson family are Red (Nyong’o), Abraham (Duke), Umbrae (Wright Joseph), and Pluto (Alex). While the cast works great as menacing antagonists, they don’t have much of a connection to their doppelgangers as Adelaide has to hers. The Tethered Wilsons can be easily forgotten as they are picked off one by one in a Scooby-Doo fashion. Gabe kills Abraham, Zora kills Umbrae, and Jason conveniently kills Pluto. They seem to recognize the world just fine, unlike Dahlia (Elisabeth Moss) and Tex (Tim Heidecker), the Tethered versions of Kitty and Josh Tyler. They do not move with precise direction as the Wilson family does, which is why besides Red, they are the audiences’ closest contact to a Tethered’s emotions and their reaction to the surface. Moss has very little screen time, but she owns it by giving audiences silent answers. But Red is the calculated leader that actually has a voice. Her hurt is shared by others, making her broken voice a strong one.
On Christmas, the girl received wonderful toys; soft and cushy. But the shadow’s toys were so sharp and cold they sliced through her fingers when she tried to play with them.
Adelaide has a grand stage to dance on, luxurious toys, and a perfect family life. She’s on top of the food chain while Red is abandoned to resent and begin a resistance. Peele is not shy at all with his delivery – it’s noticeably a class issue and an alternate civil rights movement.
While it’s refreshing that a household can survive the horror, the stakes are not very kilter. Because while the Wilsons are experiencing an incomprehensible nightmare, there are many occasions where the horror stops – for good and for eh. Peele could have taken a load of inspiration from Funny Games where the Wilson family are powerless against their reflections. Us could have been that punishment but it wasn’t, as during times of stress, it doesn’t stop the characters from having an extremely inappropriate conversation about “kill counts.” Or casually chillin’ in an ambulance as Adelaide goes on a hunt and rescue mission to fight her other self, Red. Adelaide shows such force and aggression, that perhaps it wasn’t a rescue but an agenda to put the past behind her once and for all…
Us is just as enjoyable as cookie dough – delicious even though it’s unbaked. Without spoiling anything into oblivion, there are some things that are not clear. Basic questions like how does it operate, when was it shut down, and where was the military. But cookie dough is great, as is the film.