"Us," the new movie from Oscar-winning writer/director Jordan Peele, doesn’t aspire to grand social commentary, but it’s so well-made that it stumbles on greatness often enough to make it worth seeing. The movie is exactly what horror fans should want more of from the genre’s recent resurgence: It has a fantastic cast, it looks beautiful, and it’s full of scenes that should make anyone afraid to visit a lake house. So what if the big reveal (unlike in "Get Out") fails to live up to the tension that leads up to it?
One great thing about "Us" is that it is so obviously the work of a director with more ideas than he can possibly execute at one time, which means that there's so much more to come from him. Peele is set to remake the cult classic horror movie "Candyman," he developed a reboot of "The Twilight Zone" and he is an executive producer on the upcoming HBO show "Lovecraft Country." He knows how to tell terrifying stories, and "Us" is not for the faint of heart.
The movie’s trailer makes it clear that "Us" deals with doubles, shadows, and how we cope with our own inner darknesses, but that makes things sound weightier than they actually are.
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The movie begins in 1986, when Adelaide wanders away from her parents and into an unspecified trauma inside a creepy carnival funhouse. In the present day, Adelaide and her family (Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) head to their vacation house at the beach to meet some friends and their daughters. Unsettling coincidences and PTSD triggers pile up until an eerie new family arrives, dressed in red jumpsuits and brandishing scissors and deranged grins; mayhem ensues.
This would be enough for most horror movies — the middle of the movie is essentially "The Strangers" with doppelgängers — but Peele uses supernatural elements to touch on questions of inequality and privilege. That is also, unfortunately, where the movie starts to lose its way slightly. It doesn’t undermine the film, but after seeing how well Peele handled the themes of "Get Out," his explanation of the horror twist comes off as superficial.
Even so, the movie taps into childhood fears that are nearly impossible to shake — How safe is it to leave this window open? Am I really capable of protecting myself? Is someone watching me, hating me, plotting against me, for no reason other than that I exist in the world?
A huge part of the film’s success is due to Lupita Nyong’o's performance as Adelaide Wilson, who proves in the first few things-are-not-right moments that she belongs in the same blood-soaked cave of fierce, terrifying maternal figures as Sigourney Weaver in "Aliens," Shauna Macdonald in "The Descent" and Toni Collette in "Hereditary." “What if a mother had to defend her family from [x]?” is a plot as old as storytelling, and it’s easy to do badly.
"Us," by comparison, works so well because it’s fun to watch Nyong’o and her costars (Duke, Wright Joseph, Alex, Elisabeth Moss and Madison Curry) create distorted versions of themselves — the “tethered,” as Nyongo’s doppelgänger character Red calls them — that are genuinely compelling and homicidal at the same time. The violation of a home invasion is frightening enough without imagining the perpetrators as slightly alien, downtrodden lookalike maniacs bent on stealing not your things, but your whole life.
And, because this is a Jordan Peele film, the movie features reference after reference to the movies of his (and our) childhood, including a "Jaws" t-shirt on Adelaide’s son Jason, tapes of "The Goonies" and "C.H.U.D." next to the television young Adelaide watches in the beginning of the movie, and the Santa Cruz boardwalk — the real star of "The Lost Boys." All are intended to make it clear that something scary lurks down in the darkness, but the truth turns out to behalf stoner-metaphysics and half Denver airport conspiracy theory.
Peele’s sense of humor, though, is also the source of the best scene in the movie, which unfolds as Moss and movie-husband Tim Heidecker bicker over the Beach Boys and their home assistant. Rich people in glass houses should play “Good Vibrations” sparingly. And, I was not expecting "Us" to have anything in common with "The Favourite," but apparently rabbits are the new hot inscrutable cinematic bookend.
It’s tempting to see the movie’s portrayal of the tethered and their motives as a metaphor for class war — at one point, Red says, “We. Are. Americans” — but that’s exactly what the story doesn’t quite earn. The current cultural moment is filled with economic anxiety, both real and as positioned as an excuse for hateful violence; the 2020 presidential election will test America’s willingness to settle for what little the world’s richest people leave for everyone else. It’s impossible to deny that cruelty is a foundational part of society. But the movie doesn’t really give viewers much in support of a definitive explanation of inequality.
That’s okay; in 20 years, maybe there will be a new cultural anxiety onto which our fears of doubleness anT the Other can more concretely map. The world will have to wait for Peele to present a gory version of "They Live." And, I’ll happily watch that movie, but this one is thrilling proof that "Get Out" was no fluke and the future of horror lives in heads with brains that dream big... as well as splatter dramatically.