In his 1938 essay "Psychology and Religion," psychoanalyst Carl Jung presented an updated version of the Freudian concept of the "shadow," a projection which emerges during early childhood and manifests the primitive instincts emanating outside of the self’s "light of consciousness." We are believed to be tethered to our shadow, and upon discovery, we either become possessed by or assimilate with it.
The titular antagonists of director Jordan Peele’s second feature, Us, use this identity to terrorize and massacre their mirrored personas. Peele's first film since his 2017 Academy Award-winning debut Get Out, Us stars Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther) and Winston Duke (Black Panther) as Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, who with their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), take a trip to their vacation home in Santa Cruz. All is well until one night, a family invades their home for what they call "the untethering."
Given that Peele has demonstrated through his work in sketch-comedy that he is able to exaggerate the mundane and turn the relatable into entertaining excess, the writing for Us is surprisingly subtle. Peele’s narrative is expertly crafted. It sprinkles clues and moments of foreshadowing throughout the film, most of which will remain inconspicuous until the second viewing. Even minor bits of dialogue, such as Gabe and Adelaide’s aspirations for their track-star daughter, are later used against them.
What is most surprising about this film is how it perfectly blends elements of horror and comedy without compromising either. Moments, including when the family argues about who gets to drive based on who has the highest kill count, make for believable reactions to the circumstances in which the characters are submerged. The characters feel like real people.
In addition to the conventional horror — for instance, Jason’s doppelgänger moves around on all fours — there are even more unnerving and unnatural nuances imbedded into the shadow characters. There's the smooth yet constricted nature of Adelaide’s shadow's walk and the eerie silence of Zora’s shadow's movement.
The narrative of Us, though compact, overwhelms viewers with easy-to-miss symbolism, almost demanding they see it again and again.
Some critics are comparing Peele to M. Night Shyamalan in the early days of his success, or Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his powers, but Peele stands out now, in the current moment of cinema. Perhaps it is better to recognize Peele as the first of his kind, rather than the second coming of someone else.