Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss
Let’s get this out of the way: Get Out was a singular achievement. Taut horror-thriller, drum-tight metaphor on race relations, devilish satire on cultural appropriation—Get Out was all of these things and more. It would be next to impossible to live up to such an auspicious debut. So get over the disappointment of Jordan Peele not being able to duplicate Get Out, dig into your popcorn, and appreciate Us for what it is: a consistently entertaining follow-up that has a lot on its mind and isn’t afraid to swing for the fences.
Peele sets up his narrative masterfully. After title cards that declare there are thousands of miles of tunnels under the United States with “no known purpose at all,” we are transported back to 1986, efficiently summoned by the theatrical charity stunt called Hands Across America, in which people linked their arms across the continent to eradicate homelessness. Then it is on to a muggy summer night at the carnival boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California, where little Adelaide (newcomer Madison Curry) wanders away from her Whack-A-Mole-playing father—there will be many examples of macho ineffectuality like this sprinkled throughout the movie—and makes her way down to the beach. As heat lightning flashes like an omen in the night sky, Adelaide enters a hall of mirrors with the ominous directive of “Find Yourself.” She gets lost, confused by the reflections, and starts nervously whistling “Itsy Bitsy Spider”…only to have it whistled back to her in the darkness.
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As she creeps along, she encounters a little girl who looks exactly like her. At this point the opening credits starts to roll, the camera pulling out from one solitary rabbit to reveal a whole wall lined with cages of the creatures. What do those rabbits mean? What happened to Adelaide? What does Michael Abels’ score, which unsettlingly combines Gregorian chants and African beats, have to do with all of this? It is the most diabolical exercise in disorientation, of keeping you knocked off-kilter, ever committed to film.
It’s a bit of a comedown that we have to deal with exposition. It is three decades later, and lost little Adelaide has grown up to be an anxious mother (Lupita Nyong’o) going on vacation with her affable, Homer Simpson-ish husband Gabe (Nyong’o’s Black Panther co-star Winston Duke) and their two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They are the Wilsons, well-to-do enough to own a summer home, even though you get a sense that husband Gabe is desperately trying to keep up with their wealthier friends the Tylers, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), Josh (Tim Heidecker) and their blonde twin daughters, who own a more palatial vacation house and an actual yacht compared to the Wilsons’ dingy motorboat. It’s rich people problems writ large, and Peele mines it for all the comedy it’s worth.
But Adelaide isn’t feeling right. Her intuition tells her something bad is coming—and who can blame her, considering that they own real estate a few miles away from the beach where her childhood trauma occurred. (Why did she let her husband sign those ownership papers, anyway?) Sure enough, son Jason tells them there’s a family standing in their driveway, and a home invasion thriller unfolds—with the strangers turning out to be funhouse-mirror duplicates of the Wilsons, wielding scissors they are willing to sink into the flesh of their counterparts.
While its suspense is generally effective, Us is flabbier than its predecessor, especially when it bends over backward during the third act to explain its doppelgänger conceit. It’s a good thing Peele has an actress as supple and limber as Nyong’o to do much of the heavy lifting. Her Adelaide thrums on nervous energy, smart enough to call the police on a hunch and brave enough to descend into a subterranean complex with a fireplace poker. Her doppelgänger is an even more brilliant sight to behold: With glassy eyes and her luxurious lips frozen in a homicidal smile, Nyong’o also gives her double a wheezing voice with which to explain her backstory. It is the voice of a murder victim whose throat has been slashed, the sound of the wind whistling through a neglected graveyard.
Meanwhile, Elisabeth Moss takes her cues from Nyong’o’s sleight of hand, diverging from it and then finally duplicating it to give her supporting character’s limited screen time more oomph than it warrants. It would be an understatement to say that Moss is the kind of actress who can do more with a tube of lipstick than another thespian of lower caliber can do with tons of motivation.
As I said, Us has a lot on its mind. Are those doppelgängers stand-ins for class warfare? Or are they symbols of the unfettered id? Is that title merely an object pronoun, or is it also a sly wink to the fractured country that provides the movie its setting? The metaphors may not be as airtight as those in Get Out, but it’s a thrill to see Jordan Peele broadening the canvas on which he paints his nightmare visions, building his own syntax for the genre film by film. Viewed that way, Us is less a disappointing follow-up than a thrilling harbinger of things to come.