The doppelgänger is an age-old figure of dread. A portent of doom or impending misfortune, they’re often hellbent on eliminating and supplanting the ‘original’. They represent the uniquely horrific concept of being replaced and having no one realise that you’re not quite you anymore. Drawing inspiration from ‘Mirror Image’ – a Twilight Zone episode in which Psycho’s Vera Miles is terrified to discover her own double at a bus station – Us, Jordan Peele’s exceptional followup to Get Out, introduces us to the eerie world of the Tethered. A wretched subterranean society of living shadows forced to emulate their surface-world twins, they’ve lived in misery and pain for years, but for how much longer?
Into this uncanny world we follow Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family on their holiday to the beach at Santa Cruz. After a terrifying childhood encounter in a Funhouse with a young girl who looked just like her, Adelaide is understandably haunted, reluctant to return to the scene of her ordeal. Things come to a head when a quartet of mysterious red-clad strangers try to gain entry to the house later that night. But as we soon discover, this isn’t a simple home invasion horror, and these are no strangers.
If Get Out was a horror film about race, Us examines a broader sense of societal privilege – and what happens when we’re confronted with the ramifications and realities of that privilege. In Peele’s own words, “Those who suffer and those who prosper are two sides of the same coin.” The Tethered, uncanny scissor-wielding clones with silent grins and a penchant for violence, are undeniably frightening. However, stripped of their free will, beholden to the whims of the surface world and condemned to eternal misery, they’re also undeniably victims. This is best explored through Adelaide and her double Red.
In a film of uniformly excellent actors, this astonishing dual role by Nyong’o is the film’s crowning jewel – though, like countless other incredible horror performances before it, it will most likely be overlooked by awards bodies. Fans of Tatiana Maslany’s multiple roles in sci-fi clone drama Orphan Black will appreciate the difficulty and nuance required to portray doubles. It’s not just about giving them different haircuts and calling it a day. It’s about conveying their identical nature while giving them distinct and nuanced characteristics, right down to the minutest body language. With her rictus grin, wild and unblinking eyes, and the world of pain and rage spilling forth from them, Nyong’o’s Red is a revelation. In a film laden with bloody violence and terrifying chases, Red’s slow, rasping monologue about a girl and her ‘shadow’ remains one of the film’s most frightening scenes. The detail of the performance is astounding. As Red confronts her surface-world counterpart, you may need to remind yourself that this is not the work of two separate actresses.
While its central premise is ultimately a little over-explained (rather than leave the doubles’ origins a mystery, Red comes down with a powerful case of Basil Exposition in her final scene), Us is nevertheless guaranteed to be a classic of the horror genre. Like The Babadook’s spike-fingered silhouette or the flower crowns of Midsommar, the Tethered’s red boiler suits and golden scissors are instant and indelible modern horror iconography. The practical mechanics of the premise don’t exactly bear up under prolonged scrutiny (where, for example, did the Tethered source thousands of said identical red boiler suits from?), but pedantry aside, Us is a carefully-crafted film with a truly thought-provoking premise. Like any great horror, it reflects the issues and anxieties of the society it’s made for.
Us portrays a particular interest in man-made horror, for trauma brought about by oppression and the violence it inspires. Red, the film’s de facto villain, was partially strangled, dragged below ground, separated from her family and forced to live with the knowledge that she’s been replaced by none other than Adelaide, our supposed heroine. And yet, it’s difficult to blame Adelaide for fighting so hard to escape from such a world at any cost. We are forced to reckon with the knowledge that audience surrogate Adelaide willingly condemned Red to a life of misery and suffering under the ground. There are few easy answers, but what is clear is that Us is pushing us to examine our own privileges in light of the fact. The title itself is clear in its accusation – we are the monsters.