Director Jordan Peele follows up the Oscar-winning success of his social thriller “Get Out” with a trip to the “Twilight Zone.” No, not his reboot of the famous anthology series (that will come to small screens later this year) but to a storyline he says was inspired by an episode of the Eisenhower-era show called “Mirror Image.”
According to Rod Serling’s original opening monologue when look-a-likes torment a young woman, “circumstances assault Millicent Barnes’s (played by “Psycho’s” Vera Miles) sense of reality and a chain of nightmares will put her sanity on a block.”
Peele updates the doppelgänger danger premise but also ups the horror elements to tell the story of a trip gone wrong for the Wilsons, overprotective mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), goofy dad Gabe (Winston Duke) and young kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex).
On vacation in Adelaide ‘s hometown of Santa Cruz, site of an upsetting incident when she was a child, the young mom is tormented the past. Her attempts to squash the unhappy memories have been unsuccessful and now she is troubled by the fear that something bad will happen to her family if they don’t pack up and head home. “I can’t be here,” she says. “It’s too much. I feel like there’s a black cloud hanging over me and I don’t feel quite like myself.”
Her worst nightmares come true when strange beings in red jumpsuits, carrying scissors, show up in their driveway. The really creepy part? They call themselves the Tethered because they look like each member of the Wilson family. When they invade the house, the horror is kicked up a notch or three. “They look exactly like us,’ says Adelaide. “They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won’t stop until they kill us… or we kill them.”
When the family first spies the mysterious family in the driveway Gabe puts on a brave face. “Let’s all stay calm,” he says. But this isn’t the kind of movie where people stay calm. Especially when feral shadow people with a grudge against anyone who grew up in the light are out for revenge. The Wilsons are a nice family confronted by something they could not imagine, let alone control. “How many of anybody are there going to be,” asks little Jason.
Peele proves, as if there was any doubt, that “Get Out” was not a fluke. He skilfully navigates “Us’s” story, establishing the Wilsons as a regular, likable family with a teen daughter prone to rolling her eyes and a father who’s always quick with a dad joke. When the going gets grim Peele uses ingenuity, humour, a creepy kid choral score and some very scary images to add life to what might have been a simple home invasion movie. From the opening scenes in a California carnival to an audaciously choreographed climax, Poole crafts a memorable horror film with a message.
For much of the film it’s the Wilsons against the world but soon the subtext sinks in. The Tethered aren’t exact replicas of the Wilsons, they are the Wilsons if they didn’t have advantages—education, money—and they are here to get what they think they deserve. It’s a gory take on class structure, on the chasm between rich and poor, between those with power and advantages and those without. It’s an outlandish story but the powerful message resonates in Trump era America.
“Us” is given it’s humanity by Nyong’o’s Adelaide. Even when she’s cracking heads with a fireplace poker she has compassion. She is by times a mom, a monster, a victim and the aggressor but never less than compelling. For too long women of colour have been dispensable in genre films. Nyong’o’s deft touch makes one hopeful for more colour-blind casting in the horror and fantasy genres, even if the overall tone of this film is one of hopelessness.