Brandon’s Angle: ‘Us’ is Jordan Peele’s piercing look into the American Dream

Illustration by Julia Gilbert

Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer

“We’re Americans.”

Dialogue delivered with conviction and piercing intensity, while exuding an enormous amount of complexity and depth, could be considered the thesis for Jordan Peele’s newest film, “Us.” A film that asks, among many questions, what does it really mean to be an American?

After his 2017 Oscar-winning directorial debut, “Get Out,” the pressure is up, and the stakes are high for Jordan Peele.

“Get Out” is a revolutionary piece of contemporary horror that feeds into modern cultural anxieties and taboos to tap into our deepest and darkest fears. It was, and still remains, a paradigm-shifting film that reshaped the idea of what “horror” actually is and asked viewers to look inside themselves to find what is truly frightening.

In that idea alone, Peele’s highly anticipated follow-up, “Us,” dives deeper into that same issue: looking within one’s self to find the true source of terror.

“Us” tells the story of Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, and their children, Zora and Jason. They’re an African-American family that decides to go on vacation to the Santa Cruz Beach for the summer. But the rest of the family doesn’t know that in 1986, Adelaide had a nightmarish encounter with what she believes to be her doppelgänger that left her mentally scared and dreading a return to Santa Cruz.

Her fears are confirmed when her double, “Red” returns with a family of identical doubles who call themselves “The Tethered” of Gabe, Zora and Jason. What follows is a night during which the two families play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that turns the Wilsons’ lives into a living hell.

“Us” is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in a long time. After watching the trailers, and looking at Peele’s previous work, I thought I had an idea of what the film was going to be like. But “Us” defies expectations not only for the movie, but the characters that inhabit its world.

“Us” shines by using allegory and symbolism to tell a story. If you try to analyze this movie from an entirely literal perspective, it will always seem complicated and convoluted. And that’s not to say it sometimes isn’t. If you really wanted to, you could poke so many holes in the film’s plot. Peele tries so hard to weave the allegory and symbolism into every aspect of the film, but at times he reaches too far to connect the dots.

But he builds his characters’ motivations and history through brilliant metaphors in an original and incredible way that I’ve never seen before. This is especially true for Adelaide’s character, played by the incredible Lupita Nyong’o.

From the opening scene of “Us,” the viewer is put in Adelaide’s shoes and forced to experience her trauma firsthand. This immediately creates a connection with her that twists and turns in unexpected ways as we learn more about her.

Nyong’o’s performance as Adelaide and Red is breathtaking. The way she communicates her thoughts and feelings with her eyes is truly mind-boggling. When the two families meet in the Wilsons’ living room, you recognize the other family members in the room, but you can’t help but be find yourself lost in Lupita’s eyes. She gives two entirely distinct performances, all while making them feel tied or, for lack of a better word, tethered, together. The scene is cut perfectly too — it’s composed almost entirely of close-ups of Nyong’o as the two women talk to each other.

Without spoiling anything or diving too far into my interpretation of the themes, Adelaide operates as a vessel for the audience to experience the American dream through the eyes of a black woman. The way Peele and Nyong’o pull this off is nothing short of masterful. Her performance is up there with the likes of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” It leaves you chilled to the bone and thinking about small nuances — like the way she walks and breathes — long after you leave the theater.

Technically, “Us” is superior to “Get Out” in almost every way — shot composition, cinematography and use of color. And as a sucker for great usage of color theory, I was mesmerized by the opening scene because of Peele’s implementation of the color red as a motif.

Michael Abel’s incredible score also adds a layer of unease as strings are methodically plucked in the background.

Peele managed to pull off a Herculean effort of cinematic excellence with “Us.” And while it isn’t perfect, it separates itself from other horror movies by asking tough questions and confronting the viewer. This is why I think “Us” and “Get Out” are so important. They dissect and challenge our traditional ideas of horror by turning them into something tangible and relatable.

“Us” is a bold and transcendent piece of filmmaking that solidifies Jordan Peele’s transformation from career funnyman to an iconic auteur of modern-day cinema.

Rating: 4.5/5

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