We have met the enemy and they are Us | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

We have met the enemy and they are Us 

Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is less funny and more unsettling.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

click to enlarge us_web.jpg

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

With his debut feature Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele announced himself as a horror filmmaker in the grand tradition of George A. Romero and Larry Cohen, savvily using the genre to interrogate American social issues. The film was perfectly scary, but its ingeniousness lay in its satirical streak. Peele dramatized common fears among various minority groups about assimilation into and appropriation by the dominant white culture, mining the subjects for discomforting laughs before turning the story into more unsettling territory. But even when Get Out became a full-fledged horror film, Peele didn't lose sight of its guiding theme of white people using a range of ploys to entrance and ultimately subordinate people of color. Released around the time of Donald Trump's inauguration, the movie became a social phenomenon, touching a raw nerve in the culture and making loads of money in the process.

In short, Peele had a tough act to follow, and the smartest thing about his second feature, Us (now playing in wide release), is that it doesn't try to repeat the formula of Get Out. The film, like its predecessor, is centered around a metaphor, but that metaphor is more open-ended, harder to pin down. Peele's imagery carries a wealth of associations; the movie doesn't encourage the sort of straight-ahead reading that Get Out did. This ambiguity is something of a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Us isn't a funny, cathartic crowd-pleaser like Peele's debut. (Where the audience with whom I saw Get Out cheered or screamed at every twist, the crowd at the theater where I saw Us on opening night was far more subdued.) On the other, it achieves an insidious, lingering effect that's rarer in the horror genre.

Us begins with three separate framing devices, each of which opens up a possible reading of what's to follow. First comes a title card informing the audience that there are thousands of miles of unused underground passageways in the United States; Peele uses ominous language to hint at something devious lurking beneath the surface of American life. Next comes a TV promo from 1986 about the nationwide charity benefit Hands Across America. Peele maintains the ominous tone of the title card, slowly zooming into a vintage TV set that's playing the ad and which has stacks of VHS tapes arranged around it with eerie neatness. Again, Peele intimates an unseen devious presence, but he complicates the mood by foregrounding a call for unity. What are we to make of the juxtaposition? That the promise of Hands Across America (and other photogenic acts of public concern) is simply a cover-up for darker, unacknowledged impulses within our society? Peele returns to this idea, but only at the end of Us, leaving the audience to wait and see.

From there the film presents a dramatic prologue, set in 1986, in which the heroine, Adelaide (played effectively by newcomer Madison Curry), gets separated from her parents at a beachfront carnival in Santa Cruz, California. Adelaide wanders near the ocean, then comes upon a fun house. Inside, she explores the hall of mirrors and encounters another little girl who looks exactly like herself. (Peele creates a nice surprise by making the stranger appear to be a reflection at first; some people in the audience when I saw the film jumped when the stranger turned around.) It's an affecting moment that taps into the fear that a person may not have agency over their identity—that someone can be him- or herself and also a stranger. Peele leaves it up to the viewer to decide how this ties into the fears introduced in the other two framing devices, letting the ambiguity get under one's skin.

The next half-hour of Us gives the audience time to chew over the ideas presented in the first ten minutes, as Peele builds a creepy atmosphere before getting to the next big scare. The least successful section of the film, the first act slowly introduces the primary characters, who aren't particularly interesting or unique. Adelaide is now middle-aged (and played by Lupita Nyong'o), married to a genial man named Gabe (Winston Duke), and raising two kids, aloof teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and goofy younger son Jason (Evan Alex). Peele shows the family driving to their summer home—which happens to be in Santa Cruz—and ready to have a relaxing vacation. All that's clear about these characters is that they have money and typical upper-middle-class social aspirations; Peele doesn't reveal what the parents do for a living, what their backgrounds are like (apart from Adelaide's traumatic experience as a girl), or where they live the rest of the year. All that matters is that they're a well-adjusted black family, which Peele emphasizes for perhaps longer than he should. The director creates a compelling frisson between the normal on-screen behavior and the eerie visual aesthetic (lots of slow zooms and Steadicam shots reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining), but it wears out its welcome before the plot advances.

After a day at the beach, where the characters relax with some white family friends and Adelaide freaks out when she sees that the cursed fun house from her youth is still standing, the family returns to the summer home for the night. Adelaide is restless, her post-traumatic stress triggered by what she saw on the beach, and soon her worst fear emerges in the form of a family that resembles her own. The doppelgangers barge in and start terrorizing the protagonists, threatening them verbally before taking out pairs of very sharp scissors. With the exception of Adelaide's double, none of the other doppelgangers speak—they communicate mainly in grunts, suggesting they come from some barbarian culture. The primitiveness of the doubles is one of the most evocative details of Us; it suggests, alternately, those aspects of a person that can't be assimilated into polite society and the barbaric urges that society trains us to suppress.

The family's grisly escape from their murderous doppelgangers makes for the lengthiest and most effective climax of Us. In fending off their demonic doubles, the family succumbs to their own worst instincts, becoming murderers themselves. This development suggests a sort of negative unity, with everyone joining together in a mutual ugliness. (The film will amplify this idea in its haunting final image.) Peele reiterates the notion when the family seeks help from their friends, only to find that the other family has been murdered by their own doppelgangers and that these brutes must be destroyed lest they kill again. Adelaide's family proves surprisingly adept at getting rid of them. Eventually it turns out that a whole army of doubles is rising up from under the earth to declare war on aboveground society. Peele doesn't make clear what the hordes want, and this ambiguity (as opposed to that with which he defines the principal characters) strengthens the film's central metaphor. Do the doubles represent America's suppressed underclass? Or perhaps the realization of a fear of society devolving into barbarism? Again, Peele doesn't resolve the issue, forcing viewers to leave the theater with their fears intact.   v

Trailers

Film Details

  • Us

    Us

    • Rated R - Drama, Horror, Mystery-Suspense, Thriller

Now Playing

Afternoon

7:00 PM AMC South Barrington 24
175 Studio Drive
Us
7:00 PM Harper Theater
5238 S Harper
Us
7:00 PM AMC Dine-in Northbrook Court 14
1525 Lake Cook Road
Us
7:00 PM Showplace 14 Galewood Crossings
5530 W. Homer Blvd.
Us
7:00 PM AMC Loews Woodridge 18
10000 Woodward Ave.
Us
7:05 PM Century 16 Deer Park
21600 W Field Parkway
Us
7:10 PM Goodrich Portage 16 IMAX + GDX
6550 US Highway 6
Us
7:10 PM Lansing Cinema 8
16621 Torrence Ave.
Us
7:15 PM Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18
3740 E. Main Street
Us
7:15 PM Regal Bolingbrook Stadium 12
1221 W. Boughton Road
Us
7:15 PM Goodrich Kendall 11 GDX
95 5th Street
Us
7:20 PM AMC Oakbrook Center 12
600 Oakbrook Center
Us
7:20 PM Rosemont 18
9701 Bryn Mawr Ave.
Us
7:20 PM AMC Dine-in Yorktown 18
80 Yorktown Shopping Ctr
Us
7:20 PM ArcLight
1500 N. Clybourn
Us
7:20 PM River East 21
322 E. Illinois St.
Us
7:20 PM AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18
7000 Carpenter Road
Us
7:25 PM Regal Lincolnshire Stadium 15 & IMAX
300 Parkway Drive
Us
7:30 PM Lake Theatre
1022 Lake St.
Us
7:30 PM AMC Loews Crestwood 18
13221 Rivercrest Drive
Us
7:30 PM AMC Showplace Schererville 12
1400 Eagle Ridge Drive
Us
7:35 PM Cinemark Tinseltown USA
320 South Lincolnway
Us
7:35 PM Century 12 and CineArts 6
1715 Maple Ave.
Us
7:35 PM Century 12 and CineArts 6
1715 Maple Ave.
Us
7:35 PM Cinemark Tinseltown USA
320 South Lincolnway
Us
7:35 PM Century Stratford Square
804 Stratford Square
Us
7:35 PM Century Stratford Square
804 Stratford Square
Us
7:35 PM AMC Loews Streets Of Woodfield 20
601 N. Martingale Road
Us
7:40 PM ArcLight Glenview
1850 Tower Drive
Us
7:45 PM Marcus Country Club Hills Cinema
4201 W. 167th Street
Us
7:45 PM AMC Dine-in Block 37
100 N. State Street
Us
7:45 PM AMC Loews Quarry Cinemas 14
9201 63rd St.
Us
7:45 PM Regal Lake Zurich 12
755 S Rand Road
Us
7:45 PM 600 N. Michigan
600 N. Michigan Ave.
Us
7:45 PM Regal Cantera Stadium 17 & RPX
28250 Diehl Road
Us
7:50 PM Showplace ICON
150 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Us
7:50 PM Cinemark @ Seven Bridges and IMAX
6500 Route 53
Us
8:05 PM Webster Place 11
1471 W. Webster Ave.
Us
8:10 PM Marcus Elgin Cinema
111 S. Randall Rd.
Us
8:15 PM AMC Chicago Ridge 6
500 Chicago Ridge Mall
Us
8:25 PM ArcLight
1500 N. Clybourn
Us
9:10 PM Marcus Gurnee Mills Cinema
6144 Grand Ave.
Us
9:15 PM New 400
6746 N. Sheridan Rd.
Us
9:20 PM Emagine Frankfort
19965 South La Grange Rd
Us
9:20 PM Cicero Showplace 14
4779 W. Cermak Rd.
Us
9:40 PM Chatham 14
210 W. 87th St.
Us
9:45 PM Marcus Addison Cinema
1555 W. Lake St.
Us
9:45 PM Showplace 14 Galewood Crossings
5530 W. Homer Blvd.
Us
9:50 PM ArcLight
1500 N. Clybourn
Us
9:50 PM Marcus Chicago Heights Cinema
1301 Hilltop Ave.
Us
9:50 PM Classic Cinemas Charlestowne 18
3740 E. Main Street
Us
9:50 PM Marcus Orland Park Cinemas
16350 S La Grange Rd
Us
9:50 PM Lansing Cinema 8
16621 Torrence Ave.
Us
9:55 PM Goodrich Kendall 11 GDX
95 5th Street
Us
9:55 PM Goodrich Randall 15 + IMAX
550 N. Randall Road
Us
9:55 PM Century 16 Deer Park
21600 W Field Parkway
Us
10:00 PM AMC Hawthorn 12
675 Hawthorn Center
Us
10:00 PM Marcus Elgin Cinema
111 S. Randall Rd.
Us
10:00 PM AMC Showplace Naperville 16
2815 Showplace Drive
Us
10:00 PM Harper Theater
5238 S Harper
Us
10:00 PM Goodrich Portage 16 IMAX + GDX
6550 US Highway 6
Us
10:05 PM AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18
7000 Carpenter Road
Us
10:05 PM Lake Theatre
1022 Lake St.
Us
10:10 PM River East 21
322 E. Illinois St.
Us
10:10 PM Rosemont 18
9701 Bryn Mawr Ave.
Us
10:15 PM Regal Bolingbrook Stadium 12
1221 W. Boughton Road
Us
10:20 PM Regal Lincolnshire Stadium 15 & IMAX
300 Parkway Drive
Us
10:30 PM Century Stratford Square
804 Stratford Square
Us
10:30 PM AMC Loews Streets Of Woodfield 20
601 N. Martingale Road
Us
10:30 PM AMC Dine-in Block 37
100 N. State Street
Us
10:30 PM AMC South Barrington 24
175 Studio Drive
Us
10:30 PM Cinemark Tinseltown USA
320 South Lincolnway
Us
10:30 PM Century 12 and CineArts 6
1715 Maple Ave.
Us
10:30 PM AMC Oakbrook Center 12
600 Oakbrook Center
Us
10:30 PM AMC Loews Quarry Cinemas 14
9201 63rd St.
Us
10:30 PM Cinemark @ Seven Bridges and IMAX
6500 Route 53
Us
10:30 PM Century 12 and CineArts 6
1715 Maple Ave.
Us
10:30 PM Cinemark Tinseltown USA
320 South Lincolnway
Us
10:30 PM Century Stratford Square
804 Stratford Square
Us
10:30 PM 600 N. Michigan
600 N. Michigan Ave.
Us
10:35 PM AMC Loews Crestwood 18
13221 Rivercrest Drive
Us
10:40 PM Regal Cantera Stadium 17 & RPX
28250 Diehl Road
Us
10:40 PM Showplace ICON
150 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Us
10:40 PM Chatham 14
210 W. 87th St.
Us
10:45 PM City North 14
2600 N. Western Ave.
Us
10:50 PM Marcus Country Club Hills Cinema
4201 W. 167th Street
Us
11:00 PM Webster Place 11
1471 W. Webster Ave.
Us
11:10 PM Showplace ICON
150 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Us
11:10 PM Showplace ICON
150 W. Roosevelt Rd.
Us

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

More by Ben Sachs

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories