This article contains mild spoilers for the film Us.
In his newest film, the Hitchcockian horror Us, the writer, director, and producer Jordan Peele offers a sharp, often funny meditation on the terrifying power of human connection. Bonds are broken, ties are severed. No relationship, even the most fundamental, is quite what it seems.
As the film’s lead, the 12 Years a Slave and Black Panther actor Lupita Nyong’o plays two roles: the seemingly normal human mother Adelaide Wilson, and Adelaide’s nefarious doppelgänger, Red. Early in the film, a family of red-jumpsuit-clad clones, each creepily resembling a member of Adelaide’s family, arrives to wreak havoc upon the Wilsons while they’re on vacation. Red leads this eerie, scissor-toting assembly, who announce themselves as “the Tethered,” as they attempt to exact vengeance upon the humans for reasons that are initially unclear.
Adelaide’s family is portrayed by a stellar cast. Nyong’o’s fellow Black Panther alumnus Winston Duke lurches about lovingly as her sturdy goofball of a husband, Gabe, and the supremely talented young actors Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex play the pair’s children, Zora and Jason. (All the actors also play the Tethered for their respective characters, often acting opposite themselves.) They rally around one another, and offer much of the film’s suspense-puncturing comic relief.
Still, Nyong’o’s performance anchors the film. Rather than playing one character who devolves into villainy, as the actor Jack Nicholson did in his thrilling embodiment of The Shining’s Jack Torrance, Nyong’o presents two distinct characters whose moral trajectories rely on each other. The work here is daunting: Red and Adelaide share a rich, painful history, but Nyong’o must stretch them away from each other and fill the ensuing gap from both directions. There’s certainly precedent for one actor playing two lookalikes in horror flicks, such as in the director David Cronenberg’s 1988 film Dead Ringers and in the 1993 erotic thriller Doppelganger. But Peele diverges from these movies in his choice of origin story. The Tethered aren’t twins of their counterparts or supernatural alter egos; they are threatening figures engineered by the same social order that protects the humans they terrorize. As Red and Adelaide, then, Nyong’o telegraphs this morbid domination and irrevocable codependence.
When the Tethered first appear, their ghostly entrance into the Wilson family’s home is orchestrated by Red, her movements terrifying in their insect-like agility. Her pace is quick, her strides almost untrackable even as they are clearly visible. Red skulks and pounces, crackling with bone-deep resentment. Nyong’o imbues her with ghastly gravitas. But the character’s most distinctive—and certainly most harrowing—characteristic is the shocking voice with which she speaks.
Whether she offers commands or pleas, Red strains her voice as though its flow were constricted by a rusty pipe. In the scene in which she first appears, Red rations her words, releasing them through a chilling rasp. The Wilson family sits in abject fear as Red looms over them. With her husband already injured and her children shaking, Adelaide begs Red, “What do you want?” The Tethered leader’s response is as syncopated as it is sinister: “We want to take our time,” she ekes out, each word somewhere between a gasp and a growl.
In preparing to play Red, a character who, it soon becomes clear, carries an immense psychological burden, Nyong’o drew from real-life psychosomatics. “I was inspired by the condition spasmodic dysphonia, which is a condition that comes about from a trauma—sometimes emotional, sometimes physical—and it creates this spasming in your vocal cords that leads to an irregular flow of air,” the actor told Variety at the Los Angeles premiere of Us. “So I studied that, I worked with an ear, nose, and throat doctor, a vocal therapist, and my dialect coach to try and make sure I could do it and do it safely. ’Cause I had two roles to play, I couldn’t afford to damage my voice.” (Her choice to draw inspiration from the condition has prompted some criticism from those with the disability, who say they already face stigma.)
Red and Adelaide were each shot on different days, their shared scenes the product of impressive editing. What is perhaps most remarkable about Nyong’o’s dual performance is the actor’s visceral portrayal of her characters’ fraught relationship to each other. The film unravels their backstory, a complex allegory for American identity, in its final minutes, but Nyong’o subtly transmits their specific traumas long before viewers are introduced to them. Much of the revelatory performance is drawn from Nyong’o’s investment in both women’s interior lives. “Right out of the gate she was asking questions about the characters that I didn’t know the answer to—and I knew everything about them,” Peele, who wrote the lead with Nyong’o in mind, told The New York Times recently.
With Adelaide, Nyong’o manages to embody fear in response to herself. Her eyes leak a slow wellspring of tears. Her voice stutters, her lips tremble. Before the arrival of the Tethered, Adelaide senses that something is amiss and explains her anxieties to Gabe. Recalling a time in her childhood when she disappeared from her parents’ view at the boardwalk and wandered into a mirror-filled funhouse, Adelaide seems to briefly regress to that earlier scene. (It was then that a young Adelaide, played by the stellar newcomer Madison Curry, first saw a girl who looked just like her.) “It feels like there’s this black cloud hanging over us,” the present-day Adelaide tells her husband, her hands shaking and her body rigid as she communicates her suspicion that the girl is following her.
As the story progresses, and Peele builds toward a climactic reveal, Adelaide grows more and more defiant. Nyong’o is riotously fun to watch in these moments; she darts across the screen and projects both verbal fury and violent blows. The final face-off between the two characters finds Red and Adelaide dueling in a kind of menacing ballet. Here, Nyong’o is particularly magnificent. She conveys Adelaide’s terror and determination with pitch-perfect jabs. Red’s desperation becomes palpable. The stakes are high, and the dancing is frantic. The scene effectively condenses the entirety of Black Swan into a single montage.
For those who have followed her career, it’s hardly surprising that Nyong’o would be able to lead a film with such magnetism. The Kenyan Mexican actor won the 2014 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the enslaved American woman Patsey in the director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Last year, she played the sagacious humanitarian Nakia in the director Ryan Coogler’s landmark Marvel adaptation, Black Panther. She is discerning in her choice of roles, and each of her selections has been a showcase of the Yale School of Drama alumna’s tremendous range.
But Nyong’o, a dark-skinned woman of African descent, has also had to contend with Hollywood’s nearly intractable colorist and sexist biases. That it has taken the actor, an acclaimed and accomplished talent, this long to land so meaty a leading role is disappointing, but the quality of her performance is undeniable. In excavating the psychic recesses of both her characters, and in a horror film no less, Nyong’o also offers a subtle indictment of an industry that has long dismissed black talent. Her rise has been a long time coming.