After the enormous success of “Get Out” writer-director Jordan Peele found himself the object of near universal acclaim. Since the earliest screenings of his sophomore effort “Us” the acclamation has only intensified. He has already been heralded as “the new Hitchcock” and “the next Spielberg”. And one blurb has christened his newest movie “The Best Horror Film of All Time”. That’s an absurd level of praise and completely unfair to a filmmaker with only two movies under his belt.
“Get Out” was a movie full of big ideas but hardly what you would call groundbreaking execution. The sheer audacity of its story seemed to be enough for most people to overlook its gaping plot holes and third act sloppiness. “Us”, same genre but a much different movie, suffers from none of those same problems. In fact, it turns out to be a fascinating mélange of smart, well-measured comedy and straight-forward psychological horror but with a host of extra flavors tossed in. Most importantly, it’s a wonderfully original bit of horror which is something the genre is always in need of.
Peele begins his chilling and twisted tale with a really well crafted prologue set in 1986. On the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk a young girl named Adelaide wanders off from her parents and into a rinky-dink funhouse. She’s found there shortly after but not before a traumatizing encounter leaves her shaken to the core.
Jump ahead to the present day. A grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) arrives at her family’s lakeside vacation home with her garrulous and daffy husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their early-stage teen rebel daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and their precocious young son Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide hasn’t shared her childhood trauma with Gabe who is understandably confused when she pushes back on his plans for an afternoon at Santa Cruz Beach.
Adelaide gives in and they head to the beach to hang out with fellow upper middle-classers Josh and Kitty Tyler (played by Tim Heidecker and Elizabeth Moss) and their two snooty daughters. But when Jason wanders off it’s deja vu for Adelaide. She finds her son but is clearly rattled and the family outing is cut short. Back at the lakehouse Adelaide and Gabe are hashing it out when Jason notices a creepy family lurking in the driveway. If you’ve seen the trailers you know these aren’t just pesky neighbors. They’re doppelgängers – ghoulish copies of Adelaide and her family. But what do they want and where are they from?
I’d be doing a major disservice if I went any further because the less you know the better the experience. Let’s just say the terror kicks in and “Us” takes the early form of a home invasion flick. But as it ventures further down Peele’s rabbit hole it slyly and in some instances gruesomely branches into several frightening new directions.
This is also where Peele’s interest in duality comes fully into focus. It’s seen not only within the narrative and the characters but also the cast members who play both the family of four and their macabre copies. All of them are good but it’s Nyong’o who shines brightest (Oscar I hope you’re watching?). When she steps into the skin of Red, her sinister other self, her performance takes on an otherworldly aura. From her eerie off-kilter mannerisms to her gurgling voice laced with a menacing wheeze. It’s fabulously unsettling.
You could argue that Peele has too much on his mind and that he has a hard time corralling his plethora of ideas and themes. Strangely I actually see its broader ambition as a strength. “Get Out” had a much tighter focus but its delivery was messier. With “Us” the aim may be a little messy but Peele brings it together with sharp instincts and a better grasp of scene-to-scene storytelling and tension-building. Best of all he maintains a level of uncertainty and ambiguity which allows for a variety of interpretations depending on the set of eyes you’re looking through. And oh how well he uses Michael Abels’ brilliantly chilling score.
While “Us” is not specifically about race Peele has intimated his desire for audiences to see a black family as simply that – a black family and nothing more. But even that is a sly way of challenging his viewers. Much of “Us” works that way – dealing with themes in subtle yet effective ways. The lone exception being a specific scene with a certain obscenity-jacked N.W.A. song blaring in the background. Funny at first, bludgeoning by the end. Most will love it but it’s the one instance where Peele gets a little sidetracked and the scene takes a hit because of it.
While many will point to “Get Out” as Jordan Peele’s seminal work, for me “Us” is the movie that puts him among those significant filmmakers to keep an eye on. What he does in “Us” isn’t stumbled upon. It comes from a shrewd understanding of his craft. He’ll have you scouring every scene for clues and digging deep for philosophical meanings. He’ll have you tense and on the edge of your seat wondering what comes next. And as he’s exploring this idea that “we all have a dark side”, he brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘afraid of your own shadow’.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS