Shahadi Wright Joseph
1 Hr., 56 Mins.
Us March 22, 2019
s, Jordan Peele’s excellent follow-up to 2017’s Get Out, begins in 1986. For some, 1986 is the year of True Blue or the Hands Across America charity event — a year saturated with nostalgia. Us heroine Adelaide, by contrast, might consider 1986 analogous to a shattered mirror or a black cat. It’s cursed.
We meet Adelaide as a skinny little girl as the film opens. It’s nighttime, and she’s traipsing around a Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. Her mother dotes on her, per usual; her father is so eager to play carnival games that his wife and daughter could ditch and it would probably take at least an hour for him to notice that they’re nowhere in sight. It’s clear that the familial dynamic is strained; the excursion is probably an attempt to help ease things.
But ease things this jaunt won't. Adelaide wanders off and sets in motion a spell of splendid horror filmmaking on Peele’s part. As if hypnotized, Adelaide lands in a funhouse by the shore, where figurines hidden in the walls pop out at her and where trick mirrors make her look like Tweedledum. It’s a place ripe for jump scares, but Peele has something different up his sleeve. He burns through the clichés of sequences spiritually similar to this one — the lights go out; Adelaide loses her way — but then brings us to something of an anticlimax. The girl sees something so inexplicable and chilling that her eyes bulge: a ready-made copy of herself, standing by the exit in her same three-sizes-too-big Michael Jackson tee. (And no, she’s not looking in a mirror.) The twist is subversively understated and barely dwelled on, but it effectively shakes us up. We’re not sure whether this is an optical illusion or something more sinister.
The tonally serious and suspenseful opening of Us suggests that we might be in store for a more traditionally frightening movie than the brainy, bonkers Get Out. But what follows confirms that Peele is still uninterested in the conventional (though he’s still a stickler for fun if familiar horror tropes), and that he’s among his generation’s cleverest and most daring filmmakers. His brand of horror is high-concept and unapologetically idiosyncratic. It freaks you out but also prompts you to really think about why it freaks you out. “What do you think it all meant?,” you’ll probably ask your viewing companion on the ride home as you try to shake off your jitters.
The rest of Us is set in the present day, featuring a handful of smartly placed cutaways to that fateful 1986. Adelaide is now grown and played by the luminous Lupita Nyong’o. She is married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), a goofball Howard graduate, and they have two kids: Jason (Evan Alex), an odd bird who carries around a werewolf mask in the way others might a blankie, and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), a gangly teenager who always has her headphones in. We first meet the Wilsons while they’re en route to the infamous Santa Cruz, planning to unwind at a vacation home and hang out with the Tylers, some old family friends. The Wilsons have a playful, convincing rapport; they like teasing each other and bonding over music, from Janelle Monáe to Luniz.
Adelaide, who struggles to so much as say “Santa Cruz” without wincing, tries keeping her cool at first. But once the Wilsons get to their destination, the dread becomes increasingly unbearable. She’s certain that she will somehow meet her double from 1986 again. The trailers and promotional imagery for Us, of course, tell us ahead of time that her worst nightmare will come true. To the Wilsons’ surprise, though, it isn’t just Adelaide’s double who arrives in the front yard on the first night of the vacation. Replicas of the entire family show up, all clad in blood-red tracksuits and clutching gold-colored scissors.
Us doesn’t move in directions we’d otherwise expect it to. It does not turn out to be a more macabre take on the standard home-invasion thriller; there are no hackneyed scenes finding the doubles (who are referred to as “the tethered”) dressing up as their counterparts in order to lethally trick people. The narrative grows wilder and riskier as it moves along, eventually landing on a bound-to-be divisive final act. (If you thought the concluding act in Get Out was batty, wait until you experience this one, which comes with a class-system allegory that’s somehow both canny and a hair ludicrous.)
The horror genre, with its dependence on violence and adrenaline-rushes, tends to be a fount for great, strikingly kinetic performances, and Us contains a bevy of them. Duke is infectious as comic relief personified; the kid actors are remarkably emotive and game for anything. The movie especially finds sweet spots, though, in the performances of Nyong’o and supporting actress Elisabeth Moss, who plays the Tyler family’s matriarch. Moss is given the seemingly simplistic role of the vapid, rosé-loving housewife who might consider Eileen Fisher’s a third home. Her performance could have resorted to caricature, but Moss is precise and trenchantly funny. There’s a scene during which the camera, in close-up, watches her apply cakey pink lip-gloss so bizarrely that I was convinced she was on the way to having her version of a Diane-Ladd-in-Wild At Heart (1990) freakout. (Thankfully, she doesn’t.) A less capable actress might have turned this moment into a silly spectacle, yet Moss manages to achieve bonafide brilliance in just about 30 seconds.
Nyong’o, who hasn’t gotten a meaty role like this since 2016’s Queen of Katwe, is urgent and physical in a tremendous dual performance. She’s a relentless mother bear as Adelaide and expertly terrifying as the dopplegänger, whose eyes are perennially bugged-out and who speaks in a creepy, sooty whisper. There’s an abstract offness to Adelaide that’s hard to put a finger on, though — a characteristic that, as viewers will find out, has been carefully inserted into Nyong’o’s portrayal. The actress’ cultivation of a subdued but unmistakable aura of doubt is impressive; she grabs onto the subtlest details of Peele’s writing and amplifies them.
Us begs to be watched again. It’s so rife with references and visual foreshadowing that I’m certain I missed some ingenious details. The ending (which pretty exhaustively explains the background and motivations of the tethered) is so loaded with big reveals that there are probably other takeaways that might be able to be gleaned from additional viewings. The film ultimately isn’t as concise and deep-in-your-bones scary as its predecessor, but whether Us holistically coheres on the first — or fourth — viewing doesn’t matter. What Peele makes is so conceptually audacious and visceral that you can’t help but savor everything he has to offer. A-
This review also appeared in The Daily.