Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Evan Alex, Ashley McKoy
Running Time: 116 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Fittingly, Jordan Peele's Us begins with a prologue centered around one of the most frightening experiences that can happen when you're a child: Getting lost. Whether it's ten minutes or two hours, there's s very real sense of helplessness as a series of worst case scenarios start racing through the mind. Peele must be the first filmmaker to shoot a sequence like this with a clear understanding of those stakes and ability to fully convey them to the audience. We literally feel how petrified, yet strangely curious and excited this little girl is about the unfamiliar surroundings she finds herself in, and the uncertainty of whether she'll ever get back. It isn't until later that we realize the magnitude of this event and its far-reaching consequences, but not only for her. And with all the clues waiting to be deciphered and play out in the film's remaining length, Peele answers the question of whether he's capable of following up Get Out by delivering an effort that somehow feels even more ambitious and thought-provoking.
As the latest to affix his name to a Twilight Zone reboot, it may seem easier than ever for some to level the criticism, that as writer and director, Peele's "merely" churning out modern feature length versions of those episodes. But as anyone who's actually seen the original series could attest, that's a pretty high compliment. Layering his story with scathing social commentary sure to draw Get Out comparisons, this plays more subtly, requiring some work from its audience, and possibly multiple viewings, to fully absorb all of its ideas.
You could probably compose a solid list of Peele's influences here, ranging from The Shining to The Strangers to Funny Games to Black Swan, even as this creation seems to bare very little resemblance to any of them, at least narratively. But more importantly, it's scary. In fact, it's the first horror film in a long while that earns that label, taking a classic doppelgänger premise and flipping it on its head, subverting expectations in ways that likely would have earned the approval of Rod Serling himself.
It's 1986 when young Adelaide Thomas (a revelatory Madison Curry) goes with her parents on vacation to Santa Cruz, but with her father distracted, she wanders off alone at night on the boardwalk before arriving at a desolate fun house on the beach. In it, she's confronted with a hall of mirrors and a double of herself who most definitely isn't a reflection. Eventually found by her parents, Adelaide is left traumatized by the encounter, unable to speak and possibly facing years of therapy sessions due to whatever may have occurred in those fifteen minutes.
Flash forward to present-day California and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is seemingly recovered, but reluctant to go to the family's Santa Cruz lake house with husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and their two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). But fear and trepidation really kicks in when they all head to the beach to meet up with their wealthy friends the Tylers, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss).
Shaken by their beach outing, Adelaide returns to the house with her family, only to soon discover mysterious, threatening visitors standing in their driveway staring them down. A closer look reveals the shadowed foursome in red to be their physical counterparts despite acting, speaking and even looking differently from them. They're evil, but what they want and why they're here now is anyone's guess, as is their relationship to the event that shook Adelaide to her core as a small child. It's immediately clear the Wilsons will have to fight for their lives against intruders who believe everything is theirs for the taking.
The idea that if there's an "us" there has to be a "them" is the foundation on which Peele's story is built. Wherever there are "haves," there are also"have nots," and sometimes the reasons as to how people find themselves in those positions boil down to pure chance and circumstance. Or do they? Life may not be fair, but the questions presented end up having more to do with whether it's truly the luck of the draw or society's collective ignorance causing that, or possibly a combination of both. Revealing any more would risk spoiling the surprises Peele's cooked up, or the tremendous technical expertise with which he delivers them, in the process creating an unmistakable sense of time, mood and atmosphere.
Opening in a 1986 Peele doesn't feel the need to advertise with posters, hit songs or crazy wardrobe choices because he's more interested in replicating a feeling and memory of that era, a commercial for the failed and mostly forgotten "Hands Across America" campaign against hunger airs on a retro TV set. We know it means something because it all does, including and a creepy title sequence featuring a myriad of rabbits, the first pieces of a puzzle that will slowly come together by film's end.
The present-day home invasion scenes are the closest the movie comes to traditional horror, with Peele milking a moment or scene to find as much fear in the tension of what will happen than what eventually does. Prior to this, the idea of of actors playing two different versions of their characters in a scene would be considered a stunt or digital distraction, but it's pulled off so seamlessly here that the idea of that isn't even given a second thought when they appear.
Taking full advantage of playing what amounts to twisted mirror versions of their characters, it's the award-worthy Nyong'o as "Red" who makes the strongest impression, employing a deep, demonic voice that any other actress probably couldn't pull off without invoking giggles. But it's as Adelaide that she does most of the film's heavy lifting in conveying the emotional trauma that still very much haunts her, as well as the fight and determination that kicks in when it comes time to protect her family from this inexplicable outside force with motives well beyond their complete comprehension.
Playing characters both physically threatening and psychologically unhinged, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex each bring something entirely different to the table as their evil counterparts, with personaities and ticks that hint at a shared history, and the anger at being denied a better life, perhaps through no fault of their own. Despite more limited screen time, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker's work as Adelaide's snotty friends cuts to the bone of the film's themes, as an extended invasion sequence carrying echoes of A Clockwork Orange puts those characters' purposes front and center, exposing their ugliness in all its hideous and hilarious glory. Moss is particularly creepy throughout, but if ever there's an overlooked contributor, it's composer Michael Abels, whose eerie, hypnotizing score couldn't possibly provide a better backdrop or scene companion for the unfolding atrocity.
Following that centerpiece sequence, the film's focus shifts toward grappling with the larger issues, as Peele places himself in the unenviable position of having to pull back the curtain and deliver a dreaded exposition dump. And it's just about as satisfying a one as you'll see, begging for further analysis and repeated viewings. At some point, there needs to be an explanation, even if it leads to more questions. But the really big ones need answering. Who are they? Why are they here? How did it start?
Most filmmakers would buckle under the weight of having to connect the dots and deliver on the highest of expectations. Instead, Peele doubles down with a shocking reveal that urges viewers to rethink everything that came before. Not in terms of plot, but ideas and philosophy. It isn't the clean conclusion viewers think they want, but it is a justifiably complicated one, beautifully showing more than it could ever tell. With Us, Peele proves himself much more than a one-hit wonder, forcing us to reasses our own allegiances as we stare directly into the face of humanity's ills.