Body snatchers invade Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

The horror maestro’s second feature is funnier and scarier while sparing no viewer of their own reflection.

This article contains spoilers for “Us.”

Jordan Peele shared the cryptic first poster for “Us” last May. For months, it was all fans knew about the writer-director’s follow-up to “Get Out.” By December, a red one-sheet had landed of a pair of hands holding scissors that are prominent throughout the film. It wasn’t until Christmas day that the trailer featuring a haunting remix of Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” sliced its way through the internet and got everyone wondering why Lupita Nyong’o would have an evil doppelgänger threatening to ruin her family’s vacation and destroy their beach house.

As it turns out, Adelaide (Nyong’o) and Gabriel (Winston Duke) aren’t all that innocent, and neither are you and me and everyone else who bought a ticket. At least that’s how Peele sees it, and judging by a title that’s conveniently missing two period marks, that’s how he sees the state of our country. In our divided landscape, his film is hilariously entertaining and dreadfully resonant as it suggests all of us with a roof over our heads and food in our mouths are a part of the problem. It challenges viewers to project their own experiences of duality instead of defining the villain outright with its use of the age-old doppelgänger effect.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” used this trick to explore McCarthyism, “Us” uses it to explore Trumpism. These alternate versions of ourselves could represent the impoverished, immigrants or anyone else who has been marginalized. Clues like a clip of the failed Hands Across America campaign for the homeless hint that this story is mostly about class, but also race. Elisabeth Moss shows up as a friend among others whose plastic zombies get bludgeoned to death by Nyong’o wielding weapons that symbolize wealth like a golf putter and fire poker. If this movie were made ten years ago, it definitely would’ve been the other way around. There’s a variety of other messages and motifs including a title card describing thousands of miles of underground tunnels, a reference to Jeremiah 11:11 in the Bible and red costumes that evoke prisoners or slaves.

One would think with such interpretive themes the movie would be a bore, but that’s not the case. Peele has strengthened his balance of comedy and horror — he keeps it light when he can and dark when he should. The whole piece is tense and dreadful, but surprisingly laugh-out-loud funny thanks to its secret weapon: Duke as the goofball dad. The two kids, played by Evan Alex and especially the creepy Shahadi Wright Joseph hold their own against their on-screen parents. Speaking of, Nyong’o gives a brilliant performance as the lead of the doppelgänger clan that is so believably different from Adelaide the characters become clearly distinguishable. “We’re Americans,” she whimpers in the film’s most telling scene with a raspy voice and killer grin. Her work should finally launch an Oscar campaign for an actress in a horror flick where Toni Collette’s failed to last year for “Hereditary.”

It helps that Peele knows what he’s doing behind the camera and makes pointed stylistic choices throughout the movie. He nods to the directors of New Hollywood several times with a character wearing a t-shirt from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” the twins from Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and some threatening seagulls reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I don’t know how he feels about comparisons to cinematic legends, but he’s making hugely satisfying movies for large crowds that are also rewarding cultural experiences just like those guys did back in the day. The visual of Peele’s that strikes me most is that of an unforgettable black face with a single tear streaming down both cheeks, portrayed previously in “Get Out” by Daniel Kaluuya and now here by Nyong’o.

“Get Out” was everything a first feature from an angry artist should be — a streamlined punch in the jaw he’d been practicing in the mirror for years. That film’s subtext was its text, while “Us” is less conceptual and more ambiguous in its ideology. It’s the perfect rebuke to the sophomore slump as it clearly comes from someone who has a lot on their mind and is in control of it. The best part is he’s not afraid to point his finger at anyone in the theatre. His movie might be the only wide-release this year that demands a response from each and every viewer.

“Us” earned $71.2 million in its opening weekend at the box office. It’s the biggest debut ever for an original horror film and for a film starring a woman of color. Jordan Peele has a first-look deal with Universal Pictures to create more social thrillers via his production company, Monkeypaw Productions. His next project is a reimagining of the classic series, “The Twilight Zone,” for CBS All Access.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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