We can probably all agree that looking at your phone or talking during a movie is rude. But something we don’t really think about and ought to recognize is that these are anxiety-reducing activities. That’s not an excuse, you still shouldn’t do it, but knowing this kept me from being surprised to see so many little screens lighting up and a group of people talking throughout a recent showing of Jordan Peele’s horror-thriller Us. I do NOT blame these people for needing to reduce their anxiety.
In Us, Lupita Nyong’o plays the mother in a family of four on vacation at a beach house. One night, the family wakes up to find four shadowy figures standing in their driveway, and, not long after, this becomes a terrifying home invasion. Far more disturbing than even that is the fact that the mysterious invaders look essentially exactly like Nyong’o and her family, except that there is something very, drastically wrong with them.
Beyond that, it’s best I don’t say, because you should know as little as possible going in. But I can say that between this and 2017’s Oscar-winning Get Out, Peele has shown himself to be an expert director of horror and suspense. He plays within the genre while avoiding clichés, his shot compositions are both beautiful and designed to make us uneasy, and he knows where to place a few well timed jokes so the extreme tension of the movie is maintained without making the whole thing feel oppressively punishing. Peele understands what scares us on a visceral level, and he knows it’s not just gore or silly surprises—often, what really scares us already lies within us.
If Us contains a subtext of social commentary, it’s far less overt than it was in Get Out. In fact, I’ve read at least half a dozen reasonably compelling theories of what Peele is saying with this movie, including relating it to Jungian psychology, our current political climate, and seeing it as an indictment of Reagan-era social policies. I won’t tell you what I think, because part of the importance here is thinking through it yourself, but the movie is wide open to interpretation, and any one of the many theories could be true.
Or, none of them could be true. Us works incredibly well just as a horror movie: it’s genuinely frightening and has images that will burn themselves into your brain. The movie’s not without its flaws—it’s not particularly internally consistent, and one twist was a bridge too far for me, but none of this detracts from the full experience, and besides, the best advice I got before heading to the theater was just not to think too hard about it.
And though horror, as a genre, is shamefully overlooked when it comes to awards season, one exception for this movie may be Lupita Nyong’o, who has every chance at an Oscar nomination for Us. She’s extraordinary in her dual role as both the mother and her terrifying doppelganger, expressing resolve and vulnerability alongside searing homicidal anger and traumatic distress. Us is an intense, powerful, and unsettling ordeal that will not lead you by the hand to any conclusions, but will force you to take a very hard look at who we really are.