Is there any way writer/director Jordan Peele can possibly top his brilliant, Oscar-winning social commentary masterpiece that is Get Out? Rhetorical question. Of course he can’t. You don’t go to the sunken place twice. Like most sophomore outings, his follow-up, Us,is unwieldy and probably too ambitious for its own good. It’s also unnerving in tone and brazenly terrifying in story, the kind of movie you watch with your fingers covering your face because of the unbearable suspense. Well, partially covered — no way you’re going to not stay affixed to what’s happening on screen.
Mind you, connecting all the dots in Peele’s shrouded-in-secrecy narrative is a rather Herculean effort. And if you’re unfamiliar with the 1986 homeless fundraising stunt known as Hands Across America then please Google search before going in. It’s for real, and it provides Us’ unlikely thematic backdrop. Yup, like Get Out, this horror movie also serves as a statement on where we are — and how far we haven’t come — in terms of a united society.
The premise itself is accessible and engaging. Us opens in 1986, as an adorable young girl named Adelaide enjoys an evening boardwalk carnival stroll with her parents. She wanders off into a house of mirrors and discovers to her horror that that she’s staring back at a girl that looks exactly like her. That snap of a prologue is all it takes to for tension to kick in. Some 30 years later, Adelaide is all grown up and played by Lupita Nyong’o. She’s still unsettled by the memory. So are we.
Adelaide just kicked off a vacation in Santa Cruz with her family: husband Gabe (Winston Duke, playing it fast and loose), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jacob (Evan Alex). They have a tastefully decorated lake house and a new powerboat. But Gabe wants to hang at the beach for the day to see his friends, the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). Adelaine begrudgingly agrees. The Tylers and their teen daughters are privileged yuppies and not exactly self-aware about it, but Us is not about them. Gabe promised his wife they’d go home before dark and he’s a man of his word.
“There’s a family in our driveway.” This line, uttered by young Jacob, is the reason why audiences got scared just by watching Us’ trailer. Sure enough, they soon spot a family standing in the driveway of the home. With the darkness, it’s impossible to make out their faces. They’re lit in silhouette. Creepy layered on top of creepiness. The strangers invade the home and, whoa, they’re exact doppelgangers. Just like the one that Adelaide saw all those years ago. And they’re not on the premises to say hi.
Why all the twins? Why are they there? The Adelaide double launches into a monologue that starts with “once upon a time,” but I was too freaked out by the house of horrors to process the words. There’s a distraction factor as well: Peele is a wonder at planting clues and mysteries-within-mysteries throughout his films. Rabbits aren’t just rabbits. Dialogue is filled with subtext. A film professor would have a field day with all the symbolism. Even if everything lines up — and I’m not convinced it all does here — there’s simply too much to unpack.
Surely a second viewing is required. When Adelaine asks them who they are and the doppelganger exclaims, “We’re Americans!” the a-ha lightbulb failed to go off. Same with a long-winded third act sorta-explanation. Don’t worry, I couldn’t explain it all even if I tried. I think Peele is implying that these “others” are immigrants or the 1 percent or that we’re looking at the enemy every time we look in the mirror. Young Jacob has a throwaway line about finger-pointing early on that serves as a foreshadow. Maybe?
Ambiguous allegories aside, what makes Us a definitive future blockbuster is that the thrills and chills and, perhaps most impressive, the comic relief deliver to the extreme. Each sound is carefully orchestrated, provoking a slew of jump-scares. Not one moment is wasted. Nyong’o is a tour de force as both a frightened mother and a sadistic monster. Duke (Black Panther) plays off her with ease. They’re authentic enough together to wield weapons with force yet bicker about a certain 1990 movie classic.
You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you’ll think, you’ll dig your fingernails into the arm of the person sitting next to you. Best of all, you’ll have fun. This is Us. And this is why going to the movies with a big crowd is still a fantastic experience. Hands down.
Us opens in theaters on Friday, March 22