"His hair stood on end, and he almost fell down with horror. And, indeed, there was a good reason. He recognized his nocturnal visitor. The nocturnal visitor was no other than himself—Mr. Golyadkin himself, another Mr. Golyadkin, but absolutely the same as himself—in fact, what is called a double in every respect…" — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double
"The shadowy dark head, like mine, seemed to nod imperceptibly above the ghostly gray of my sleeping suit. It was in the night as through I had been faced with my own reflection in the depths of a somber and immense mirror." — Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Sharer"
"We have met the enemy and he is us." — Walt Kelly, Pogo
A small, quiet child wanders away from her squabbling parents on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in 1986, and enters alone a seemingly empty hall of mirrors on a dark and isolated stretch of the beach. Quickly becoming lost in the maze of her own reflections, she wanders in increasing fear, until she turns to face one of those reflections and finds it has not turned to face her in return.
And then, slowly, horrifyingly, it does.
This is the bravura opening sequence of writer-director Jordan Peele's Us (2019), and, as an exercise in weapons-grade horror, it is as effective as anything I've seen all year, and still not as effective as sequences yet to come in this confidently creepy film. But—just as he did in his debut masterpiece Get Out (2017)—Peele has more on his mind than just scares. Horror has always been a mechanism for social commentary precisely because it is unsettling: like comedy (at which Peele also excels, and which he uses the same way), it challenges and disturbs our assumptions about reality. That edgy uncertainty is just where Peele wants us. Fear is not the goal: fear is the medium Peele uses to shake us from our comfort zones and make us open enough to hear uncomfortable truths.
The uncomfortable truths Peele explores in Us are larger, more ambitious, and less easily named than those in Get Out, but for that reason they are also more important, and more invasive. Us can be watched, and enjoyed, and cringed through, as simply a masterfully made, high-concept horror film. But those who are willing to engage with its larger questions, and let them resonate, will have the more rewarding, more sustained, and more disturbing experience.
The little girl in that opening sequence is named Adelaide, and she is played (mesmerizingly, in just the first of Peele's child-casting coups) by newcomer Madison Curry. As an adult, in the present, Adelaide is played (with unspeakable brilliance) by Lupita Nyong'o. Now, Adelaide is married to Gabe Wilson (a very funny Winston Duke), and the mother of Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The family has come to their small vacation home, on a California bay, not far from the Santa Cruz beach where Adelaide had her haunting encounter with her doppelgänger.
It was only on a second viewing of Us that I noticed how little we learn about this family; that nightmarish flashback—and the fact that Adelaide studied dance until giving it up in her teen-age years—is about all the background we are given about any of them. For a filmmaker as obsessively meticulous with his information, clues, and foreshadowing as Peele—the film more than rewards multiple viewings—this reticence on his part reads as deliberate and significant. The Wilsons are, very intentionally, an Everyfamily: the actors (and Peele's observant script) imbue each of the four leads with aching authenticity, but just enough specificity to inspire empathy in the audience, not alienation.
This is a mark of just how well Peele understands the horror genre, but soon we can be in no doubt of that. Adelaide—as she confesses tearfully to Gabe one night after a reluctant visit back to Santa Cruz—has lived her entire life in fear that her doppelgänger would one day come for her.
And, that same night, she does. And she is not alone. Distorted versions of all four family members appear, hand-in-hand, in the Wilson's driveway. And they're coming in the house.
It would be a disservice to the movie to reveal any more of the secrets or surprises of Us, but this terrifying home invasion is just the first of many set-pieces that find the playfully cineliterate Peele putting his wildly original spin on any number of classic horror movie references, tropes, and genres in ways that rarely feel derivative, and always feel effective. Peele, with just his second film, has already been called a modern-day Hitchcock; if his body of work hasn't earned the comparison (yet), Peele wears the title honorably in his staging and shooting of suspense sequences. He understands patience; he understands the power of the audience seeing something the characters do not; and he understands that fear—and even sensory and emotional brutality—can be accomplished without excessive gore and exploitation.
The strange and disturbing premise of Us means that all of Peele's actors are pulling double-duty, playing both the normal characters and their nightmarish counterparts. And it is hard to imagine his assembling a better cast than this. First among them, of course, is Nyong'o, who—as both the leader of the family (Adelaide) and the leader of the others (Red)—gives two awards-caliber performances of startling intensity and staggeringly layered complexity. Speaking in a slow, raspy, choked voice that sounds painful with lack of use, and moving in clockwork precision that is sometimes stiff, sometimes surprisingly graceful, Red is as creepy and frightening a creation as any horror film can boast, and one wholly original. She is terrifying, but terrifying through a strange pain and raw vulnerability that make her almost sympathetic. Adelaide, meanwhile, is the less showy part but perhaps the greater accomplishment: she is more than the fearful and fierce matriarch of this family (though she is certainly that). She is also a complicated woman, endearing but a little neurotic, and perhaps difficult to know. ("It's not easy for me to just talk," she says at one point, awkwardly shutting down her friend Kitty's [Elisabeth Moss] insipid smalltalk.) On a repeat viewing, we can see how every single thing she does, and every mannerism she has, and every single emotion she exhibits, are all informed by what happened to her that day in the funhouse. The last two actors to win Oscars for a horror movie were Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, and Nyong'o should, for this movie, be in the running to be the next two.
But almost as impressive are the remaining members of the family. (Nyong'o is first among equals, but this really is a four-hand—or eight-hand—ensemble.) Winton Duke, so funny in Black Panther, works in a different but equally funny key here, as the "Dad-Joke" spouting Gabe, a man who will fight for his family but also knows his own limitations. (The way Gabe defers to his much stronger wife—allowing her to take the lead in dangerous situations—is a refreshing depiction of cinematic masculinity.) And Gabe's goofy strength becomes something quite different, and quite menacing, as the lumbering, inarticulate Abraham.
It may be the children who shine brightest, however, in creating genuine characters and then reinterpreting their characteristics through the nightmarish funhouse mirror of their doppelgängers. Over the grueling course of the film, Joseph's Zora, an introspective and sharp-witted teen, loses both her insecurities and her innocence before our eyes, becoming a fierce and formidable woman. (And her character's intelligence and wit take on a demonic countenance as Umbrae, in many ways the scariest and most dangerous of the counterparts.) Meanwhile, young Alex has created two hauntingly drawn characters: the quiet, solitary strangeness of Jason (who prefers to see the world through a monstrous Halloween mask) becoming something feral and tragic as Pluto, the fire-loving, fire-scarred scion of Red's clan. And Peele has not positioned the children as cute accessories to the story: Zora carries its arc—her growth is astonishing—and Jason ultimately bears the emotional weight of this sad, strange tale.
My reluctance to give away any of the secrets of Us means that I am also reluctant to get too deeply into what I think it all means; that is a discussion that can, and will, happen over the years and decades to come. My one small critique about the film is that I think Peele eventually explains just a tiny bit too much about what is happening in the plot. (The terror of the doppelgängers loses just a shade of its primal, mythopoetic power as the explanations become more specific.) But that is a minor and ultimately insignificant complaint: Peele has created in these horrifying, outraged apparitions a metaphor that strikes at the blindly complacent heart of America. They stand in for not one dispossessed people but for all of them, for oppressed racial groups, for the economic underclass, for the homeless, for Native Americans, for immigrants turned away at the border: all of these groups (and more) are referenced in Peele's inexhaustibly clever script and staging, in ways that would take a book to unpack.
Us is a movie haunted by reflections: not just the funhouse mirrors and the nightmarish doubles, but faces in windows, TV screens, forced into the slowly shattering glass of a coffee table. Us is a mirror, a mirror held up to the haves on behalf of all the have-nots upon whom we depend, and who have literally no way up from their misery.
What the film reminded me of most—emotionally, if not narratively—is Ursula K. Le Guin's haunting short-story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," a strange and profoundly disturbing allegory about how the joy and comfort of an entire society depends on the relentless misery and suffering of one tortured, malnourished, neglected child locked away in a damp and rancid basement:
"They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that is HAS to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the kindly weathers of their skies depend wholly on this child's horrid misery."
In Us, Jordan Peele has created a similar (and similarly disturbing) allegory about America. The film holds up a mirror to us, with everything we have, and demands that we acknowledge and reckon with the knowledge that it is all not just in spite of but actually dependent on people living somewhere in the world who are suffering in abject misery and neglect.
And it dares us to acknowledge that, if we could just bring ourselves to look at them—if we were, as we deserve to be, forced to look at them—those people would look a lot like us.