The many facets of Jordan Peele’s “Us”: a review

Writer Sebastian Porreca reviews the nuances of Jordan Peele's latest horror film, "Us."

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Story by Sebastian Porreca

I have always been a huge fan of horror movies. From “Hellraiser,” to “Eraserhead,” to “Hereditary,” the genre of horror has intrigued me with its unsettling yet strikingly unique plots and the ways in which it balances the art of film with the brute force of fear and violence. I remember the first horror film I watched: it was “The Uninvited” at a sleepover with a friend. I remember the joy of finally being able to watch the kind of movies whose lure and strangely intriguing DVD covers had long pulled me in. I have loved horror films ever since, so of course I took up the opportunity to go with a few friends to see the new Jordan Peele film “Us”.

I had no real expectations going into the movie. A couple of my friends discussed some reviews, but I was really going in blind. I hadn’t even seen Peele’s first film “Get Out”. While I went into “Us” with an open mind, I was ultimately left shocked at how clever and well made the film was.

Loosely, the story follows a family as they attempt to survive against the disturbed, uncanny, and scissor wielding clones of themselves. As creepy as this sounds, the film was not as outwardly “scary” as it is hyped up to be. It’s not so much focused on gore and jump scares, and instead is a more psychological and conceptual horror. Therefore, it’s probably not what you should watch if you are looking for an adrenaline-fueled scream inducer. However, that is not at all a bad thing, as the film is extremely creepy and well done nonetheless.

The most impressive about Peele’s film was just how clever and original everything was, and my brief summary certainly cannot do this justice. While there are still some great new minds in contemporary horror, it seems like a lot of the big horror blockbusters are simply remakes or sequels/prequels. And there’s not really a problem with that, but it makes the fact that Jordan Peele can create a plot that is entirely unique and menacingly creative all the more impressive.

It’s also impressive because the film didn’t always take itself so seriously. Peele’s history in comedy shines through, and there are many points of much needed comedic relief in the film. This not only breaks up the tension, but also allows the film to be more fluid across strict classification. This is mainly shown in the film’s main comedic relief, husband and father Gabe Wilson, played by Winston Duke, but also by the choice to have “Tim and Eric Awesome Show” writer and actor Tim Heidecker play a secondary role. And if you’ve never seen “Tim and Eric,” it’s about the biggest television shitpost since “The Eric Andre Show.”

“Us” captures all the art of filmmaking, which is something many blockbuster horror movies sometimes forget to include. The lighting across the film is superb, ranging from dimly lit and eerie subterranean corridors, to brighly illuminated beaches with high contrasting shadows. The acting is also simply phenomenal. Each main character also plays their own evil doppelganger, and watching each performer play completely different roles literally side by side truly displays their acting talent. This is especially true of the film’s female lead, Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o is impressive enough with her role as a strong mother and wife leading her family to survival and discovering truth about her own life, but her ability to play the extremely chilling role of her evil clone. According to an interview with Variety, she took her vocal inspirations from a vocal disorder called “spasmodic dysphonia,” which is caused by vocal spasms related to deep trauma. Throughout the film, her two roles truly seem as though they are two different people, and Nyong’o seamlessly creates a complex dynamic of blending the two seperate characters, forming them into one tangle of madness. This feeds perfectly into the deeper themes of the film such as the everyday, normal society that we live and experience blend with and be reflected by the uncanny madness and deprivation.

This brings me into the thematic and social implications of the film. Since “Get Out,” a film that is as much of a comment on American race relations as it is a horror movie, Jordan Peele has become known for his ability to seamlessly blend social commentary and the good ol entertainment of horror. “Us” is much less of a direct social commentary, but its plot and dynamics purposefully leave it open for a lot of different interpretations and readings. There are also many points and plot details that are left purposefully vague so as to create a sense of mystery, as well as to foster discussion between viewers.

Even while the plot is not distinctly political, the very nature of the film makes a powerful political statement in the world of horror films. Individuals of color are often vastly underrepresented in the horror genre, and when they are, it is often tinged with racism. The “Blaxploitation” horror films such as “Blackenstein,” carry implications of direct racism and spread inflammatory stereotypes of individuals of color, therefore undermining the humanity of the performers of color involved. While these films are a vestige of the past, tropes such as the commonly criticized practice of having black performers always die first in horror movies still continue to undermine the position of black performers in horror. Peele flips that on its head. As an African American director, Peele casts performers of color and has them play strong protagonist roles. This is certainly just one dimension of “Us,” and it doesn’t make or break the film viewing-wise, but I nonetheless think it is an interesting and positive contextual message the film conveys to viewers. It’s simply the icing on the cake to an overall amazing film.
Overall, “Us” was a masterfully done piece of horror. In an age flooded with a lot of very single tone and sterile horror films, “Us” provided something new, well done, and most importantly, deeply thought provoking.