Squad Talk: Doubles, Lupita and ‘Us’

In the wake of Get Out, his dazzling feature debut, visionary writer/director Jordan Peele returns to horror with Us, in which a family on vacation must face off against their own psychotic doppelgängers. In this spoiler-filled free-for-all, the Anatomy Squad breaks down the film…

Overall Impressions

Vincent: It’s hard to formulate an overall impression of this film after a first watch. There is so much I loved about it, but I have some small disappointments that continue to nag at me. I will say, however, that I think it is absolutely worth the ticket price to see it in theaters.

Gina: I had high expectations going into this one, and found that it took longer for the impact to hit me than with Get Out. I was definitely haunted by some lingering images and I still can’t stop dwelling on Adelaide and Red, and the implications that come out of their meeting and their connection: the disruption of meaning, the exploration of family dynamics, the suggestion of history, the uncanniness, the questioning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the nature vs. nurture thematics were all pretty unsettling.

And of course, we see a definite ‘return of the repressed’ carried out, too. I think the root of my fixation with the film stems from the concept of comparison though — it informs just about everything in the narrative. With every new detail that I discover or read about in reviews about the layers of the film, the more I like it.

Us

Performances

Valeska: Oscar noms for Lupita Nyong’o and Elisabeth Moss, please. The performances were incredible across the board. In particular, the physicality on display in this film was unbelievably compelling. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the Tethered when they were on-screen. Us rivals 2018’s Suspiria for most stunning movement work. I want a spin-off two-season series featuring just the doppelgängers moving around and living their lives.

Also, can we talk about Shahadi Wright Joseph’s outstanding turn as Zora’s doppelgänger Umbrae, AKA the most chilling psychopath ever committed to film? These Disney kids contain multitudes — so many of them are just knocking it out of the park lately playing killers.

Vincent: I loved all the performances in this film! I didn’t find any weak spots among the actors — even the children hold their own fantastically. Lupita Nyong’o is without a doubt the brightest shining star of the bunch, however Elisabeth Moss created some of my favorite moments of the film. When her dopplegänger, Dahlia, primped herself in the mirror, I was absolutely engrossed.

I also want to give a shout out to Evan Alex’s performance. I feel he had a particularly tricky doppelgänger to portray because Pluto has burns over the bottom part of his face, meaning that 10 year old Evan had to give his haunting performance primarily through his eyes and body, which is something seasoned actors win Oscars for.

CC: I can’t agree with Vincent and Valeska more. Everyone in this movie was beyond fantastic. Us contains some of the most memorable performances of the year to date.

Gina: Pretty solid performances all around, really. I loved how language or lack thereof (or its replacement with guttural grunts) is used to communicate internal strife and characterize the “normal” above ground people, and their dark, tethered selves. It’s most interestingly used with Adelaide/Red. Lupita Nyong’o’s eerie strangled rasping certainly sticks with you.

I thought the cast did an excellent job of using physicality to differentiate their two selves. The jerky, crude and animalistic movements of their tethered selves reinforces the panic the audience feels about these ghoulish shadow selves being loosed on the world.

Us

Technical (Set, Lighting, Direction, Writing)

Valeska: Man, does this film look GREAT. I’m happy that Jordan Peele is getting the budgets that he deserves — Us is stylish and gorgeously-filmed, which isn’t a surprise considering that cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’s credits include It Follows (2014), Split (2016), and Glass (2019). I mean, those tracking shots in the initial home invasion! So good!

As with Get Out, Us boasts an effective score and some pretty outstanding sound design (“snip!”). While the film does suffer from some pacing issues on occasion, editor Nicholas Monsour does a great job building and maintaining some delectable tension and unease.

For me, where the film kind of falters a little is in the execution of the final act (and it really pains me to say that, because there is so much in this film that I absolutely LOVED). The dialogue is sharp and clever throughout, and many parts of the film do work beautifully, but I think Us is at its best when it is a smaller, more intimate story.

I appreciate Peele’s ambition, adore his vision, and am truly interested in what he has to say. I like that he is creating art that addresses the deep schisms that divide America (or US), whether that means race, class, ideology, or (wilful) ignorance born of privilege. I just think that in the case of Us, the scope of his message may have outstripped what the story could comfortably carry while still maintaining a tight, compelling focus.

As the doppelgänger invasion is revealed to be not just a local phenomenon, but a national one, the film starts to feel a little cluttered and unfocused. This narrative shift accompanies the film’s temporal shift from night to day and feels just as jarring. I found that the story gets a bit weaker in the sunlight — as the narrative’s threads expanded into an ever-bigger web, their weaknesses became more apparent.

Us

That being said, the final act does contain the most important pieces of Peele’s message and I’m definitely thinking less about the awkward tonal shifts than about the sharp social commentary. I’ve been dying to see it again, and I’m hoping that a second watch will feel a little more smooth and deliberate, because Us has so many moments of absolute genius and rocks a perfect balance of levity, foreboding, and absolute terror. It’s a fantastic achievement.

CC: Jordan Peele has definitely established himself as a creative force. The technical elements and forethought he gives to a story in all aspects really drives home his long game. Whether an audience catches all these details depends on how closely they pay attention during the screening, but most importantly it creates a feeling that the film requires discussion and that it is real art.

I also have to say, as someone who is obsessed with symbolism, the duality in this film is highlighted by the thought Peele puts into it. Yes, the symbolism of the rabbits is a huge part of this movie, but can we talk about the rubber spider that takes up the majority of the screen when Adelaide and Red meet and one of them gets her face smushed into the coffee table?! The clever nod to the ‘shadow (or dark) self’ and how spiders represent you weaving your own destiny made me want to shout YESSSS in the hushed theatre.

Gina: I can appreciate Valeska’s point about the cluttered ending. The film also feels too heavy-handed with the concept of ‘duality’, but to be fair, it’s easy to integrate into just about every aspect, and it is thematically appropriate: night / day, indoor / outdoor,  fire / water, above ground / below ground.

I was also struck by Peele favouring of a particular colour theme (some reviews have pointed out the blue lean in Get Out and there’s a clear preference to red in Us). And the minute a carnival, fair, or circus is involved in a narrative, my attention is hooked. In an environment built on bright lights, loud noises, and thrills, it leaves ample opportunity for misdirection, distraction, and danger to creep in. It’s also a nice contrast to the plain, monotonous, strangely clean and almost sterile looking below-place.

The only thing I really had trouble with was the flow and choice of some of the early dialogue sequences, though I’m aware there are some specific meanings to pieces of what’s said, so I’m sure that’s just my mind lingering on those.

Us

Memorable Setpieces & Scares

Valeska: God, it’s so difficult to pick one memorable setpiece or scare. The film is such a great collection of outstanding moments. The funhouse sequence at the beginning is so well-done. The child actress, Madison Curry, is SO expressive and adorable that I was gripping the arms of my seat in fear for her. The Hands Across America intro is quite simple, but strangely gripping (and I loved the VHS copy of C.H.U.D. that featured so prominently).

Anything with Elisabeth Moss’s doppelgänger blew me away — she may just be my favourite actress working today. Tim Heidecker’s doppelgänger leaping down the stairs is great. As mentioned before, scenes featuring Shahadi Wright Joseph as Umbrae are CHILLING. If I see anyone smiling at me like that in real life, I will have three strokes simultaneously. The fiery showdown between Evan Alex’s Jason and Pluto near the end is pretty heartbreaking.

I could literally go on for an hour just recounting memorable scenes, and that is a testament to how talented and intuitive the cast and crew of this film are, and how well their talents gelled together. Everything is so well-acted, well-shot, well-directed, and well-edited.

Vincent: The creepy imagery created in this film is masterful. The funhouse set is my favorite set of the film, and I loved The Hands Across America imagery. However, I think the thing that will be most memorable over time is the rabbits. Rabbits are mundane animals that have managed to pick up so much meaning throughout time. They symbolize animal testing and a cold, sterile environment, reproduction and multiplication, rebirth and good luck. It’s smart to tie this film to a symbol that is both common and complex. They may not have had a large part in the film, but I will be thinking of Us whenever I see rabbits in the future.

CC: I’m not sure that I could pick just one moment that scared me because I think Peele has also really perfected the art of balancing just enough humor at the height of a scare so that you subconsciously bury the tension with no release. That tension eventually transforms into this dread that creeps you out long after the film is over.

I will say that the first time we meet Lupita’s Red in the living room, she is completely unnerving. It’s a phenomenal performance. And Elizabeth Moss’ doppelgänger, when she sees her husband killed and transitions from heart breaking silent wail into maniacal laughter, is terrifying to witness.

Gina: I agree with CC on that last point. And I think it’s safe to say that the image of the other family silhouetted in the driveway is now iconic. I also can’t get that moment of young Adelaide on her first encounter in that beachside, strangely out-of-place funhouse, her eyes widening in realization, the whites of her eyes standing out in the dark shadows. So unsettling.

I also loved the scene where the family gathers their thoughts and plans their next move in the destroyed living room of their friends’ luxury summer home — they’re unflinching about the corpses littering the ground around them and sprawled across the shattered coffee table.

Us

The Ending / Explanation

Valeska: I feel that I need to rewatch the film again before commenting much on the ending — this is nitpicky but, on the first watch, I felt that a certain exposition sequence didn’t make logical sense alongside the final twist at the very end, when we find out that the woman we know as Addie was actually the original Tethered doppelgänger. It seemed weird to me that Red would feel the need to educate the ersatz Addie on the Tethered, but I’ve thought a lot about it since then and it really does make sense that the original Tethered girl wouldn’t necessarily understand what was going on in terms of the experiment, and it would take Red (formerly the real Addie) to put it all together since she had at least a child’s understanding of the upper world before being dragged into the underworld (and presumably had time in the ensuing decades to do some subterranean detective work)?

Even writing this out is making me crazy. I REALLY need to watch the exposition scenes again with the final twist in mind.

In terms of the twist itself, I really loved the comparison it drew between the type of people who are only interested in looking out for themselves, and those who put in the work to improve conditions for or find justice for their communities. Once the formerly Tethered Addie made it to the surface world and escaped the underworld life, she didn’t do anything to help those still held below. Like many Haves, she was unmoved by the hardships of the Have-Nots — even though she used to be one.

Addie’s surface-world privilege could have been used to raise awareness of the plight of those who struggled below. Instead, she chose to forget and is complicit in their suffering. It’s such an interesting film, and every time I think about it (which is often), I find something new to consider.

Vincent: Here we come to what has been bothering me ever since I left the theater. On first watch I found the twist too common for the pedestal I put Peele’s work on.

The problem isn’t what the twist is (Adelaide being the true doppelgänger all along is the type of twist I would normally gobble up). There is, however, a good way to create a twist and a lazy way to create a twist, and it’s dependant on how well the earlier events of the film co-exist with it. A twist that is tacked on to the end of the film, without regarding whether or not the rest of the film directly conflicts with it, is lazy. I am worried that this has happened in Us, but doubt my own ability to judge the film.

Twice during the film Red, who we later find out is the original Adelaide, confronts who we believe is Adelaide — first when they break into her family’s home and then again in the tethered classroom. Both confrontations establish that Red is eager to reveal her plans and motivations to Adelaide; she takes her time and revels in it. However, during the two moments when she explains her motivations, her history, and her plans, she never accuses Adelaide of taking her place. Are we supposed to accept that she forgot her original life? Are we supposed to accept that she didn’t find Adelaide trapping her in the tethered world a noteworthy slight or reason for revenge? I can not accept either of these things.

Perhaps if Red had been unconscious when Adelaide took her place, I could believe she woke up thinking her life in our world was just a dream, but she sees Adelaide take her place. Perhaps if Red wasn’t established as the conveyor of the film’s exposition I could believe that she simply chooses not to mention it, but she reveals every detail except this one. I can not see a reason why Red would not accuse Adelaide of being the original tethered, therefore, at first glance, it comes off as lazy screenwriting, written that way for convenience.

However, I am so ready to eat my words upon a second viewing.  I don’t think of Jordan Peele as a lazy screenwriter. He is a genius in my eyes — a member of my filmmaking Mensa! Additionally, I had a similar experience when watching Get Out for the first time. I left the theater slightly disappointed in some of the choices at the end of that film, but on the rewatch everything clicked for me. I’ve seen Get Out seven times in 2 years (is this a “I would have voted for Obama a third time” moment?), because it’s a film that gets better each time I watch it. The depth and careful meaning in Peele’s writing means his films are made to be seen again and again with new discoveries and a greater appreciation each time.

Us

CC: I really liked Us when I first left the theatre and the further away from it I get, the more I grow to love it. I think there’s a lot of things we can pick at in terms of tying up loose ends or having explanations for (I still want to know what the beautiful dance scene symbolizes!), but the ending also kind of sums up the point of the movie: we never really know someone’s true motivations and that’s something we have to accept.

The themes — “The Haves vs Have Nots” to Imposter Syndrome and Survivors Guilt — all cloud and mutate the motivation based on whose point of view we consider. I think that’s Peele’s goal: do we empathize with Red, who is driven by revenge and the desire to better her life and those around her? Or do we support Adelaide, who was opportunistic and switched roles to ultimately do the same thing (only sooner, and exclusively for herself) rather than bring along the others?

I would have ultimately liked the relationship between Adelaide and her son to have had some polishing since it’s her son who ultimately shares her secret at the end and this felt a little tacked on. Even if we’re not supposed to know Red’s motivation, like Vincent mentions above, we’re expected to assume that her son has figured everything out for himself? It got a little messy there for me, but subsequent viewings may help to clear that up.

Gina: Love that point that Valeska makes about the difference between Red helping others and Adelaide’s focus on the self – nice!

For me, that exchange of looks between mother and son on the final car ride feels like a nice end point (it’s definitely disturbing!). What’s more disturbing is the feeling you have about the sense of chance that brings Adelaide and Red together, and how different things could have been.

I still have some minor outstanding questions about the reveals that Red offers during the showdown with Adelaide though (i.e. where did they find — or order? — the expensive looking golden scissors, the leather gloves, and the identical red jumpsuits? What happens once they’ve finished creating that human-chain? How does the family adapt to this new reality? Tell me more about the people behind the experiment! etc. etc.).

I will also vote for another viewing to see what else I can harvest from the film.

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