Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) plays the matriarch of the Wilson family. They're fairly well-off and fairly average. The father (Winston Duke) went to Howard, they have one son (Evan Alex) and one daughter (Shahadi Wright Joseph) who bicker reassuringly, and they're currently vacationing in their family cabin in Santa Cruz. However, after a frightening encounter at the beach, Adelaide is beset by all sorts of forebodings which come to fruition that night when they are visited by another family of four who have their faces.
Us is rife with allusions, from the opening scene that zooms in on a smattering of VHS tapes framing a television set that plays a Reagan Era commercial. And it's that language, as well as the carefully selected music pieces, that inform the film. In many ways, it relies on our knowledge of tropes to build its unease. The Jaws t-shirt that the son Jason wears is there to build our wariness of danger at beaches and the Thriller shirt that the girl wears in the opening scenes reminds us of horrific transformation and things that go bump in the night. The C.H.U.D. VHS tape is a reference to both the plight of the homeless and subterranean terrors. There's a white rabbit that leads the way to a topsy-turvy world and there are even a set of twins, which are both a reference to The Shining and to the duality that is a theme throughout Us. But while all of these are carefully chosen and alluded to, if a viewer goes in blind, there is a lack of other scares, tensions, or frights cinematically. A horror film needs more than a few scrapes of violin strings. Furthermore, a working knowledge of horror films also should mean that its characters are more aware rather than succumbing to the usual ceaseless stupidity that accompanies such fare. At this point, it's a disservice to Peele as a director and writer and to the audience that any of these should be used as a crutch.
The fright in Peele's film comes from the unknown within the known. When the father, Gabe, asks the doppleganger family "Who are you people?", the answer in a dry, rasping voice is "We're Americans." The line is there for laughs, but for Peele it is very literal. Americans are afraid of the "other", but they're also afraid of themselves. Not necessarily for individual sins, but for a collective consciousness and guilt that they're not taking responsibility for. In Us, the characters are directly responsible for the lives of their others, whether they realize it or not, and then their worst fear is manifested when those shadow selves rise up. Whatever that means for the average viewer (or the average American) -- poverty, homelessness, the current political climate, global warming-- perhaps Peele is getting more at our lack of public and social responsibility for the monsters we create rather than a specific issue. The Reagan "Hands Across America Initiative" ad is an example of a sort of action that didn't end up meaning very much at all other than imbuing a sense of patriotism and what an American is--the sort of action where taking part was more of a show than an actual effort.
It's admittedly a broad (possible) explanation, but that is emblematic of the rather broad problems of the film. It overexplains at some points, but the overexplanation only leads to more plotholes. Us would have done better by scaling back on the reveal and allowing more strangeness, or for going all in for the social commentary. The commentary as it is can only be theoretical, since there isn't a ton to back up any theory that anyone comes up with. The obvious answer, given the Reagan ad in the beginning, would be that Peele is talking about the plight of the homeless and the have-nots, who are trapped and without opportunity to better themselves. But it doesn't necessarily deliver. Because Us wavers in a weird in-between where the style of the film has more sheen than the underlying story, it ultimately fails.
The style is admittedly gorgeous. It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis creates some gorgeous carnival scenes, bringing to mind the lights and pop of the vintagey decade of the other horror movie. The colors are especially vibrant throughout, able to slice through the literal and figurative darkness of the film. Lupita Nyong'o is even more so, able to completely convince us that her character and her doppleganger are completely different people. She makes the movie frightening, with her vocal lisps and balletic movements. Her character is the most fleshed out, with emotion and a closeness that comes from a well-rounded writing of her, so we end up caring far more about her than any other character in the story. The other members of the family are more of a brief outline of the familial roles. Furthermore, the editing of their lines and their rapport is strangely stilted at times, ruining the timing that's so important to both comedic and horror films.
Us has some good ideas and even better directing, but in the end it doesn't come together. It doesn't work as either a fable or a scary movie, mainly because of that lack of cohesion. It often confuses and it doesn't succeed in making us ask the right questions. However, there are many good reasons to see it, and it has the unfortunate denigration of seeming poorer only because it comes after Peele's standout Get Out, which had a tighter vision. Nevertheless, I'm excited to see what he comes up with next; there are nuggets of greatness in the film, and not only because he alludes to previous classics.