Review: Jordan Peele's 'Us' admirable, thought-provoking
The follow-up to "Get Out" creates a mood of dread and poses many questions
Doppelgängers, American identity, the Hands Across America campaign, the transformative nature of the Luniz' 1995 hit "I Got 5 on It": Jordan Peele has a lot on his mind in his new movie, "Us."
While his breathless, nerve-racking and tricky horror thriller is never less than gripping, the writer-director takes on too much, and the end result comes up short.
But what a ride it is getting there.
Peele, in his follow-up to 2017's "Get Out," proves himself to be a master of mood, crafting an uneasy air filled with mounting tension and dread. He reminds of early M. Night Shyamalan, and the way Shyamalan had viewers hanging on every line of dialogue and taking in everything on screen looking for clues as to where he's taking you. "Us" is a wholly consuming experience, the same way "Unbreakable" and "Signs" had you enraptured. That the ending leaves you scratching your head is indicative of later Shyamalan, and is something Peele needs to iron out going forward.
We open with a message indicating the presence of thousands of miles of tunnels below the surface of the United States, then we get a commercial for Hands Across America. It's 1986, and in the reflection of a TV screen surrounded by VHS tapes — "C.H.U.D.," "The Goonies," "The Right Stuff," signposts and influences all — we see a little girl, staring at the set, engrossed.
Later, we see that girl, Adelaide Wilson, on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz, Calif. with her parents. She's carrying a candy apple, dad wins her a "Thriller" T-shirt, and she wanders off on her own and enters a spooky-looking house of mirrors attraction. Inside, she gets lost, and is terrified when she sees her exact double: not a reflection, but a girl who is her exact mirror image.
Cut to years later, and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o, never better) has a family of her own. Winston Duke is Gabe, her husband and the father of their two children, teenage Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and pre-teen Jason (Evan Alex). The family is headed off to a summer vacation at a lakefront cottage just outside of Santa Cruz.
Adelaide is understandably nervous about heading to the beach, the same beach that houses the boardwalk where she experienced her traumatic incident years earlier. But they go, and meet up with their friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker) and their two daughters.
When Jason wanders off at the beach, Adelaide is triggered and the Wilsons head back to their cottage. That night, they're visited by a family of four, who stand in the shadows at the end of their driveway. They're wearing all-red jumpsuits. And it quickly becomes clear that they're exact clones of the Wilsons.
"Us" becomes a home invasion thriller with a heart-stopping twist: the person knocking at the door was you. Then it becomes so much more, as Peele brings viewers down a mysterious rabbit hole — rabbits play an essential role, fittingly — that touches on our darkest secrets, a vengeful bible verse and a mysterious zombie-like uprising.
Is it society purging itself, is it the darkness in our hearts coming home to roost, or is it just a fun horror thriller we're trying too hard to unpack? After "Get Out," it would be silly to not dive deep into every nook and cranny of Peele's narrative. But he packs "Us" with enough material to fill two movies, and wading through the layers of meaning and potential symbolism feels like a trip to the sunken place.
This much is certain: Nyong'o is riveting, and in her flipped role as an evil twin she gives a spine-chilling performance, utilizing a voice that sounds like it's crying out of a 1,000-year-old oak tree. Duke ("Black Panther's" M'Baku) is excellent as Adelaide's strong but slightly schlubby husband, and Moss has fun as a disaffected wife and mother who's always looking to top off her wine glass.
"Us" will pin you to your seat and leave you stiff with fear. The mystery it weaves, however, doesn't yield any immediately satisfying answers, only more questions. But at least it gets you thinking, and these days, that's plenty.
Rated R: for violence/terror, and language
Running time: 121 minutes