The idiom, “To be afraid of one’s own shadow,” normally forms part of an insult, a derogatory phrase denoting child-like cowardice. The characters of Jordan Peele’s Us, however, are given every reason to fear their very reflections, as they are pursued by homicidal doppelgänger versions of themselves known as ‘the Tethered’. Nonetheless, the impact of the jump-scares are dulled by comedic moments and a catchy soundtrack which features artists from Janelle Monáe to the Beach Boys. This, combined with the film’s jumbled explanation of the doppelgänger phenomenon results in the predator’s resemblance to their victims becoming little more than a gimmick: a light twist on the conventional zombie genre.
This isn’t to say that this gimmick does not add an interesting angle to the film. The camera lingers on characters studying their faces in mirrors and in the fainter, more spectral reflections offered by dark windows. Peele touches on the relationship between the physical manifestation of the self and the psychological, perhaps making a comment on the fact that we can sometimes be scared of the unknown within ourselves. However, the pace of this movie is dictated by thrills rather than by deep introspection, and philosophical points, though brushed upon for aesthetic sake, are not developed.
The aesthetics of Us are visually striking. Doppelgängers are easily distinguished from main characters by their blood-red jumpsuits, oversize scissors and generally creepy countenances. A recurring location motif is that of the fairground. What is it about fairgrounds, ostensibly places of fun and divertissement, which makes them such popular settings for horror? In recent years we’ve seen scary scenes play out in fairgrounds in Silent Hill: Revelation, American Horror Story: Hotel, Zombieland – even the lighter-hearted Love, Simon features a moment of tension atop a Ferris wheel when the protagonist’s date almost ditches them. Perhaps, it is the dizzying effect of the bright lights and garish colours. Perhaps, it is the fine line between excitement and fear that fuels the energy of an adrenaline rush. Perhaps, it is the dual nature of fair ride machines – they can rise us up to unforeseen heights, but also plummet us down again. Claw and slot machines offer the prospect of toys and goodies to be won, but also the potential to lose large sums of money. Perhaps there is something about the human psyche that cannot accept that all the fun and games offered at a fair can come without a price; that all play and no work can lead to disturbing results – as Pinocchio and his friends discovered when their funfair paradise turned to pack-mule misery. Or perhaps I’m just massively overthinking all of this.
The creaky structures of the fairground aren’t the only unreliable machines in this film. Peele also illuminates the failings of modern technology to keep us safe. Phones, back-up generators, cars and ‘Ophelia’ (a parody of Amazon’s ‘Alexa’) are of less protection against the ‘Tethered’ than the defence of fire and saucepans. The way in which the film’s title is displayed on its cinema posters renders its similarity to the name of the North American state in which it is set quite obvious. When the ‘Tethered’ identity is questioned, Lupita Nyong’o’s alter ego proclaims “We are… Americans.” Similarly, copious reference is made to the 1986 charity event ‘Hands across America’. The meanings behind these parodies of patriotism remain a little indecipherable, at least to this Irish reviewer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to guess at their potential significance. Indeed, fun is the ingredient at the heart of this film. Not everything might make total, perfect sense, not everything might seem as refreshing and original as was perhaps intended, but there are enough thrills, chills and spills to make up for that.
Us will inevitably be compared to Peele’s recent Oscar winner Get Out – one could argue that a film following the runaway success of such a hit may be doomed to live ‘in its shadow’. Yet, Us is also wacky and entertaining enough to be an enjoyable romp on its own merit.