“What the fuck did I just watch?”
If The Root’s delightfully crass language was allowed on TV spots, that would be my one-sentence review during the new promo trailer for opening weekend. And I wasn’t asking this question in a disparaging way—trust me, knowing Jordan Peele’s intention, it’s a good thing.
I had the horrifying delight of attending the world premiere of Peele’s Us at the 2019 SXSW Film festival this past Friday.
From Universal Pictures’ press release:
Set in present day along the iconic Northern California coastline, Us, from Monkeypaw Productions, stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a woman returning to her beachside childhood home with her husband, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), for an idyllic summer getaway.
Haunted by an unexplainable and unresolved trauma from her past and compounded by a string of eerie coincidences, Adelaide feels her paranoia elevate to high alert as she grows increasingly certain that something bad is going to befall her family.
After spending a tense day at the beach with their friends, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters Becca and Lindsey (Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon), Adelaide and her family return to their vacation home to discover the silhouettes of four figures standing in their driveway. Us pits an ordinary American family against a terrifying and uncanny opponent: doppelgängers of themselves.
The film’s tagline is “Watch yourself,” which as a Leo, I uttered the words, “that ain’t no problem, that ain’t no problem.” This isn’t a film about vanity, though, it’s of sobering self-reflection.
“I have very clear meaning and commentary I’m trying to strike with this film. But. I also wanted to design a film that’s very personal for every individual,” Peele noted to the attentive crowd.
I distinctly remember when the first trailer dropped on Christmas morning and the click-click-clack of laptops and silent fumbling of smartphones alike crowded the social media sphere, ready with potential theories. What does this song mean? What does the awkward snap mean? What does the Bible verse mean? What is up with Peele’s mind?!
Following Peele’s debut feature, Get Out, many rushed to assume his second work would also be overtly sociopolitical. One of the most popular theories was that “Us” could possibly represent “U.S.” As in, the United States of America.
“On the broader strokes of things, this movie is about this country,” Peele confirmed at the premiere. “And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken with the fact that we are in a time where we fear the other, whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us or take our jobs or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all we’re all pointing the finger and I want to suggest that [when] making a monster, we really need to look at our face. Maybe the evil is us.”
To respect Peele’s “no spoilers!” wishes—and because, as a fellow creator, I genuinely hate spoiling content, at the risk of ruining a pure experience for a viewer—I will not be talking spoilers here. Just general thoughts. We still have a few weeks to go.
To sum it up—Us is an experience. Equipped with Peele’s masterful concoction of humor and suspense, the film is at its heart, an eerie exploration of relinquishing control. Warning—there will be blood (remember, we have golden scissors as the main weapon), but don’t fret, this isn’t torture porn. In fact, some of the more terrifying moments happen off-screen.
Much like its compelling characters, this film lives in a duality. Is it “horror” or is it “thriller?” Peele admitted he loves “genre [and] things that are quintessentially horror,” but ultimate succumbed to this conclusion—“Who really cares?”
I’d have to agree that the genre box doesn’t really matter here. What I will say is that Peele is clearly a student of Alfred Hitchcock, taking the audience on an unnerving rollercoaster ride (with a stunning view) that seems to take forever to climb the steep hill. Weekend Editor Jay Connor joined me for the ride and at one point, turned to be and said, “Yo, this feels creepy.” And it did. The overall tone of Us rarely let us off the hook. If we weren’t letting out a shriek or yelp, we were holding our breaths, preparing for the next one.
“I don’t think it’s about getting rid of fear, it’s about using your fear as fuel,” said Nyong’o. Well, Nyong’o’s fuel had to be fucking diesel because she bodied the roles of Adelaide (and to an even more impressive point, her doppelgänger, Red). As producer Ian Cooper noted in the press release, Nyong’o has never been the star of a film. The actress has always managed to snatch our attention in supporting roles, but it was about damn time she scored a lead. And what a debut this was. From the visceral range of emotions expressed by Adelaide to the chilling guttural sounds of Red, Nyong’o embodied a duality that could only be accomplished by a master. And that, she is.
I will say this—Us is certainly worthy of repeat viewings. Peele clearly has a knack for detail, sprinkling little horrifying Easter eggs throughout that can’t all be found in its first inspection. Following the rolling end credits, the roaring applause was cryptically colored with a sense of intrigue. Peele made the observation himself, noting he spotted a few audience members with their hands on their chins, in pensive thought. That was entirely intentional.
“I think my favorite thing is the idea that people will leave ready to have a conversation,” Peele remarked.
Mission fucking accomplished. After the obligatory long pause of “what the fuck just happened” circles through your mind, of course. And after you marinate on it a little bit, this movie will make you ask that question ... out loud.
Us scurries into theaters Friday, March 22.