Run time: 1 hours 56 minutes
Stars: Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Lupita Nyong'o
Director: Jordan Peele
Is anybody hotter than Jordan Peele right now? He produced BlacKkKlansman, leads the CBS April 1 reboot of The Twilight Zone, and won a 2018 writing Oscar (plus best picture and director nominations) for his directing debut Get Out. Us — his second horror film for smart people who don’t like excessive gore — got a 99 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, one point shy of Get Out’s perfect score, and may boost his film grosses over $400 million. Not bad for a 40-year-old directorial newcomer.
Peele also won a 2016 Emmy for comedy, and Us exemplifies Quentin Tarantino’s idea that funny and scary are “two great tastes that taste great together.” There are plenty of chuckles in Us’s lampoon of the all-American family of Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), whose kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) join her in rolling their eyes over the sitcom-worthy antics of their dad, Gabe (Black Panther’s Winston Duke), a somewhat dumb, lovable big lug. Dumber and funnier still are their bickering, boozy, smugly entitled white best friends the Tylers (Tim Heidecker and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss), who have a summer place near the Wilsons’ in Santa Cruz, Calif.
But the laughs are strictly subservient to the scares Peele orchestrates with Hitchcockesque skill. Adelaide has a bad feeling about their Santa Cruz vacation, because as a child, she had a mysterious, traumatizing experience at the ominous old beachside boardwalk carnival there. Her misgivings prove prescient when four people dressed in red and carrying golden scissors appear in their driveway. Worse, each is an evil replica of a Wilson family member (an actor’s dream to play, and the cast makes the dual roles a nightmare to remember). They grunt like beasts, except for Adelaide’s doppelgänger Red, who speaks in a strangulated rasp and moves like a giant, jittery cockroach. If you wonder why she’s so uniquely articulate for a monster, you’ll find out in due course.
All you know at first is that they know all about the Wilsons and favor odd murder techniques — they’re like zombies who aren’t brainless and don’t want to eat any. They just want to invade the cowering family’s vacation home and make it their own, while in the background, similar doppelgängers conquer the rest of America’s families, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style.
Though it works just fine as a generic horror film with an unusually talented cast, Us has scads of social-commentary subtext. The upper-middle-class Wilsons are slightly envious of their richer dimwit pals the Tylers (who attract their own shadow-self assassins), and the Wilsons’ bloodthirsty doppelgängers are extraordinarily envious of their success. They represent society’s Others: the underclass, perhaps, or immigrants, or political enemies, or anyone who feels angrily dispossessed — probably a majority of the U.S. these days. In a film filled with doubles, the title Us has a double meaning: us vs. them, and the not-so-United States. When weeping Adelaide asks scary Red who her people are, Red growls, “We’re Americans!”
Unlike Get Out, which snaps shut at the end like a perfectly designed mousetrap, Us slips from first-rate to a bit muddled in the last act, when the invaders’ overcomplicated, confusing backstory gets filled in. But that’s the 20 minutes when Nyong’o proves that her Oscar for 12 Years a Slave and her $5 billion in movie grosses were no fluke. By the sheer brilliance of her acting, she makes Red seem as real as Adelaide, a terrifying, subconscious shadow self like the ones psychologist Carl Jung thought we’re all haunted by. Her dual performance is so impressive, she powers us right through plot revelations that don’t make total sense — though they’re tantalizingly close enough that you’ll argue about the film’s meaning with your friends. Most horror flicks are barely worth watching once, but to fully get this one, you may want to see it twice.