The word “American” in a title (American Beauty, American Psycho) usually serves notice that an attempt will be made to diagnose a national condition, with the possible exception of American Pie. Jordan Peele, who made Get Out, has taken a subtler route with Us. If the title isn’t explicit enough, the message becomes clear when a man vacationing in Santa Cruz asks the people terrorising him and his family to identify themselves. “We are Americans,” they reply.
It wasn’t exactly a dream holiday to begin with. We aren’t told what possessed Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) to agree to return to the site of her childhood trauma; visiting the same Santa Cruz resort aged six, she strayed into a hall of mirrors and got the fright of her life. Now she has brought her goofy husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Images of doubles and multiples proliferate from the opening credits, in which the camera pulls back from a rabbit in a cage to show an entire wall of nibbling bunnies. In the family’s holiday home, Adelaide watches a real spider crawl out from beneath a rubber one, and Jason wears a Chewbacca mask on top of his head, lending him the look of a pint-sized Janus.
On the beach, they meet up with their white and marginally more affluent friends, the Tylers: Josh (Tim Heidecker), Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters. Kitty’s had some work done. Josh has bought a more expensive car than Gabe. The twins taunt Jason for being weird. Later that evening, Adelaide announces she wants to go home. “I don’t feel like myself,” she says. When Lupita Nyong’o is scared, you believe it. Fear plays sharply on her delicate features. You can practically hear her nerves jangling. That and the screeching strings in Michael Abels’s fraught and inventive score.
But leaving is not an option. Standing on the driveway in the moonlight are a man, a woman and two children who look almost identical to Adelaide and her family. What began in the realm of the uncanny shifts here into a home invasion thriller, then something closer to a zombie horror.
The threat of hidden racism gave Get Out its particular charge, but Us is more concerned with the idea that a disenfranchised underclass will need to be reckoned with before the spoils of consumerism can be claimed outright. That conflict is expressed even on the level of costume design: Jason’s pyjama top is an illustrated tuxedo complete with bow-tie; the menacing figures wear overalls, as though they have come to deliver sofas rather than retribution.
Race does crop up fleetingly. When Josh jokes about an intruder scenario he mentions OJ Simpson, whereas Gabe thinks instantly of the burglars in Home Alone; a black threat for the white father, a white threat for the black one. There’s also a scene in which Gabe, finding himself inside a makeshift body bag, pokes a hole through it so that he can see out, creating a kind of inverted Ku Klux Klan motif: the hood is conical but the robe is black and the eye-hole fit only for a Cyclops. It’s a loaded image, and one that Peele doesn’t quite know how to animate.
But then his abiding flaw is that he can’t always take the viewer with him on the imaginative leaps he makes. Get Out had such a strong first half that audiences were forgiving of its knotty exposition, its final fizzle into throwaway comedy. Humour and horror are more successfully integrated in Us but the picture still comes to a halt whenever the script needs to explain the eerie goings-on. Fans may well end up debating its final image, a riff on the 1986 Hands Across America campaign to fight poverty in the US, but that won’t change the fact that it doesn’t work viscerally. Great horror endings – Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man – have an essential simplicity. The need for footnotes tends to mitigate fear.
Several scenes in the movie could scarcely be better, such as a chilling attack that is soundtracked first by the whitest music imaginable (the Beach Boys) and then the blackest (NWA). Us represents a definite advance on Get Out, and establishes Peele as a fascinating film-maker. When he learns to stop over-complicating things, he may even become a great one, too.
dir: Jordan Peele
This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency