In Jordan Peele‘s “Us,” Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joesph) asks her family, “Are we just going to ignore the world’s problems?” after reading a conspiracy theory-like headline about fluoride in the water. After a pause, the radio changes to “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz, prompting the Wilson family to pivot on the topic and sing along and discuss the song’s meaning, because let’s face it, it’s inarguably more “fun” to deconstruct a beloved ’90s hip-hop hit than to bring down the mood with talk about politics, racism, fake news or environmentalism. There’s a systemic apathy issue in the United States in regards to the things left unsaid between loved ones that should be discussed openly, and the inevitable stonewall that occurs when God forbid someone wants to bring about topics of substance.
This area of the unspoken and the self-destructive tendency we have to avoid difficult truths we should address head on one of many subconscious issues that Peele weaponizes to confront viewers with the notion that there’s a wedge planted firmly in the middle of the country. We are our own worst enemy, Peele tries to say throughout, but it’s admittedly expressed quite opaquely and or circuitously; a thought-provoking film that’s also somewhat muddled.
The prologue starts in 1986 (not coincidentally midway through Ronald Reagan‘s second term in office), where a young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) stumbles across a house of mirrors under a pier in Santa Cruz and is confronted with a doppelgänger that leaves her traumatized (and perfectly emulates the wide-eyed gaze that will forever go down as “The Peele Stare”). Cut to present day, where an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) — still burdened with that confrontation 30 years prior — is taking her family to their summer home in Santa Cruz. But what should be a normal vacation is upended by the arrival of four disfigured, animalistic doppelgängers, dressed in blood red robes, who invade their home with nefarious intent.
It’s clear from the start of the prologue (which includes a slow, unsettling dolly-in on a boxy television showing an ad for Hands Across America, a theme of unity, and the lack of it, that factors heavily into the story) that Peele has a lot to say and that “Us” is the kind of ambitious, distended, “throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” sophomore feature that only a massive box office haul and an Academy Award win can buy. And bless him for it. There are micro-transactions throughout that often feel like they’re being plucked from the everyday Twitter hivemind. There’s a scene in which Adelaide is explaining what she saw in that funhouse to her husband Gabe (Winston Duke)— right after He-Man spreads on the bed in hopes of getting some— and he doesn’t believe her (#BelieveWomen), or a later moment where her sound survival logic is undercut by Gabe’s insistence on being the one to give the final word. There are multiple scenes like this in the film that contain a nugget of an idea that is broadly related to Peele’s overarching thesis about division and the brutal cost of what it would take to achieve harmony. It gets a little murky though when stacking of these concepts don’t go much further than being mentioned in passing — a quick statement about America, a #MeToo allusion, a quick flash of the Twin Towers, etc. — and given that there are so many of them, it becomes tangential thematically when you want it to stay the course.
What isn’t unfocused and is completely streamlined is Peele’s staging of memorable sequences, haunting imagery, and the athleticism of the cast. When “Get Out” was nominated for multiple Oscars, the label of the film was somehow changed from “horror film” to “social thriller,” much to Peele’s confusion. It’d be very difficult to watch “Us” and mistake it for anything other than a horror film and one that’s part home invasion thriller in a way that would make Michael Haneke proud. The centerpiece intrusion sequence is the film’s strongest stretch (and it lasts a while), and much like “Get Out,” has an astute balance of horror and humor while keeping a consistent tone (not to mention a terrific section underscored to another rap classic that will remain unnamed due to the hilarious nature of its reveal). Everyone is playing a dual role of both their main character and their doppelgänger, and as the doubles, they speak in a made-up language of largely grunts and screams, and it’s an impressive transformation. And while the kids are solid, Duke is good comic relief, and Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are hilarious in their brief roles as their vacation neighbors, it’s undeniable that Nyong’o gives the best performance, in terms of physicality, emotional torment, and the more substantial role as the double. Her terrifying laughter as the evil version of Adelaide is something you can never unhear and will never cease to send chills down the spine.
Peele had mentioned in an interview that the idea for “Us” was based on “The Twilight Zone” episode “Mirror Image.” The influence there is strong— eerie occurrences with an ironic twist— and should easily put the minds of “Twilight Zone” fans at ease with the series revival in Peele’s hands (which, truthfully, there probably weren’t many doubters out there). As a grander societal statement, “Us” is admirable to a fault, but the problem is the statement is both bold and subterranean and meant to exist within our unconscious. “Us” takes an old series episode and the doppelgänger horror genre in general and puts a completely fresh spin on it that only Peele could have cooked up, but there are just a few too many ingredients for the stew (and there are worse problems to have). As a sleekly-directed, crowd-pleasing horror film, it’s efficient, terrifyingly thrilling and a lot of fun. It’s the kind of movie that will be discussed and debated for decades to come, and perhaps thirty years from now, as things continue to descend into utter chaos, “Us” will be looked back in retrospect as prophetic. As it stands now, it’s fascinating, a little maddening, and entertaining. [B]
Click here for more of our coverage from SXSW 2019.