In a famous interview with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock said, “Psycho has a very interesting construction, and that game with the audience was fascinating. I was directing the viewers. You might say I was playing them like an organ.” Jordan Peele’s first two feature films, 2017’s Get Out and this year’s Us are doing the same thing. Watching them in a crowded theater, it’s clear that Peele has audiences eating out of his hand. People laugh when he wants them to. The theater goes silent in moments of suspense. And when he decides it’s time, his viewers scream.
Peele is taking a page from Hitchcock’s book (or would it be a frame from Hitchcock’s film?) in Us, using dopplegangers as Hitch did in Vertigo. These doubles — “the Tethered” — show up outside of Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) recently deceased mother’s beach house about 15 minutes into Us. They invade the home and sit face to face with their doubles. Adelaide’s, Red (also Lupita Nyong’o), handcuffs her to a table. Red’s voice cracks from lack of use as she explains, “We are America.” Then she sends Abraham to kill Adelaide’s husband Gabe (both Winston Duke), Umbrae to kill Adelaide’s daughter Zora (both Shahadi Wright Joseph), and finally Pluto to kill Jason (both Evan Alex).
Every actor in the film had the same challenge: to play two characters. One, a modern day human. The other, a Tethered, which had to be embodied through gestures because with the exception of Red, they were non-verbal. Without an exception, the cast does phenomenal work. Oscar Winner Nyong’o does much of the emotional heavy-lifting while Adelaide deals with a childhood trauma and mourning her mother before flipping her hair down and exuding menace as Red. Winston rattles off pitch-perfect, cringe-inducing dad jokes as Gabe, before hulking onto screen as Abraham.
Winston’s performance, like both of Peele’s features, mixes horror and humor in the perfect amounts. The jokes work because they’re organic to the film. No one breaks character to deliver a punchline. The dad jokes keep coming, but in moments that show us that they’re a way of coping rather than poking fun at the situation.
All of that’s amplified by a pitch perfect soundtrack. Like Get Out, Us has a mix of pop songs that the characters themselves play, and the choral chanting mixed with bluegrass of Michael Abels. The juxtaposition is, intentionally, jarring. The effect sometimes adds to the discomfort, and at others disarms audiences (particularly with N.W.A.’s “F*ck the Police”). It’s one of the many ways that Peele manipulates audience reaction.
Like I said in my review of Get Out two years ago, Peele makes great use of his inventory. So many of the details he works in early on seem meaningless, but actually shape the plot of the film. He’s pays attention to detail in the same way that led to James Cameron’s career skyrocketing in the 80s (which allowed him to make his not-so-good films later on). That is to say, the proverbial gun introduced in the first act goes off and Peele scatters more throughout the film.
The other thing that separates Peele and Us from so many other mainstream films (and while you might make a case for Get Out being an underdog, Us’s trailer has 6 million views at the time of this writing, opening night) is the willingness to challenge viewers. There are icebox questions, another Hitchcock parallel, that this film makes no attempt to answer. And then there’s the symbolism of the Tethered. They could represent any number of things. The Tethered may be a visual of the way trauma splits people in two, who they were before and who they were after. It could be a metaphor for codeswitching or W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness, the way Black Americans are forced to switch personalities when interacting with White Americans and Institutions. The Tethered could be a stand-in for the lives Americans create on social media, the way the person on Instagram or twitter is curated to be an elevated version of the person posting. The key may be the references to magical realism: Frida Khalo’s The Two Fridas or Julio Cortazar’s “Blow Up.” That ambiguity around the Tethered is what drives repeat viewings and the thousands of explanation articles that will no doubt be published in the coming days. I’ll be reading all of them.
Us is in theaters starting yesterday night, March 21st 2019.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director: Jordan Peele
Writers: Jordan Peele
Stars: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elizabeth Moss
Studio/ Production Co: Monkeypaw Prodcutions
Release date: March 21st, 2019
Length: 114 min