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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Us, Review: Shadow boxing

Us, Review: Shadow boxing

Us takes its own time in building up a premise and gives no indication that it is going to turn-out as a horror film, with macabre goings on and blood-baths included. To its credit, the film gives a whole new dimension to the genre, but having got there, it does not know what to do next. Repetition is the bane of any thriller, horrific or otherwise, and Us falls into that quagmire a little too early.

Back in 1986, young Adelaide Thomas is on a vacation with her parents in Santa Cruz. While the family is at the beach, Adelaide wanders off and enters an amusement park, where she encounters a spitting image of herself, in the hall of mirrors. Adelaide is later reunited with her parents, although traumatised and unable to talk about her experience.

Now an adult, Adelaide heads to her family's beach house in Santa Cruz, with her husband Gabe Wilson and their children, Zora and Jason. One night, four intruders, a ‘family’ of sorts, appear in the driveway of the beach house. Gabe attempts to shoo them away, but the strangers attack him and break into the home. The Wilsons realise that the four intruders are doppelgängers of themselves, led by Adelaide's double, Red. Red, the only doppelgänger capable of speech, tells the Wilsons the story of a girl who lives a happy life while her shadow suffers. She also tells them that their species is called Tethers, and they were part of a government experiment gone awry, therefore they were incarcerated in tunnels, and Red has freed them from captivity. Now they seek revenge from their human ‘originals’.

Everything in Us has two meanings, and motifs recur regularly. Take rabbits for instance. You see them in various places, even on a T-shirt. Rabbits are a symbol of reproduction and the food that the Tethers live on. Writer-director Jordan Peele (Keanu, Get Out) adds a scary quality to rabbits. Though rabbits symbolise plentiful reproduction, they are often used as experiment subjects, which represents the lives of these Tethered, as an abandoned experiment. Then we have a biblical allusion: a man is seen holding a cardboard piece on which is written Jeremiah 11.11, which is: "Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them." Now you can look for the 11.11 tell-tale signs, and you will find them in the first shot, where rabbits are caged in rows of 11 each, or when a baseball game is tied at 11.11.

If Us is not a complex and complicated film, I wonder which film is. It’s the kind of film that you should read about and then watch. Unwary viewers are likely to miss most of the symbols and metaphors, and some of the narrative as well, since vital secrets are revealed by Red in a hoarse voice that varies in pitch every second. And as if that was not enough, Peele doesn’t explain a few things in the narrative. If you want to test your ability to watch a film with rapt attention and not escape the minutest detail, Us is for you. You know what? The film has repeat value! You might make much better sense of it the second time around.

Jordan Peele must get credit for manoeuvering this vehicle away from the beaten path of haunted houses and exorcisms into an interesting detour, based on the duality of human existence, one being the self and the other being the shadow. By bringing them on into headlong collisions, and swapping them at opportune moments, he blurs the line between fact and fiction, fantasy and apostasy, substance and shadow, umbra and penumbra, protagonist and antagonist. Us also gives an entirely new connotation to the term ‘shadow boxing’.

Lupita Nyong'o is an actor to keep watching out for, and she does not disappoint as Adelaide Wilson/Red. Red needed to be convincing, and Nyong'o pulls it off. Winston Duke is suitable as Gabe Wilson/Abraham, a role most black actors would comfortable fit into. He puts in good effort as Abraham. Elisabeth Moss as Kitty Tyler/Dahlia contorts her face and rolls her eyes as required. Tim Heidecker Josh Tyler/Tex has a smallish role, and is gorily bumped off, like Moss. Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora Wilson/Umbrae and Evan Alex as Jason Wilson/Pluto keep up the energy levels, as they go on slamming the daylights of their grown up adversaries with blunt weapons.

Us repeats the knife/scissors routine a little too often, raises scores of questions, answers some of them directly, but for the most part, it expects you to keep searching the frames for signs and symbols. Even after all that cogitation, you might come out feeling that the answers were not answers at all, and, in fact, raised several more questions. One of them has to do with motivation. Another is about the sudden and simultaneous arrival of innumerable Tethers, emerging from tunnels, undetected by anybody, including law agencies. And pray, whatever happened to the police, who were to arrive in 14 minutes?

See it, if you like creepy nightmares. See it, if you like to be challenged, have a hawk’s eyes for detail and ears that can hear a pin drop. I must confess that I could not decipher many of the codes that Jordan Peele has used, and had to do my bit of reading to make better sense of the movie. Part of the reviewer’s job is to make things easier for the audience, without giving away spoilers.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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