★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Jordan Peele proves that Get Out was not a fluke. Us is a beautifully scripted, funny, thrilling, and surprisingly heady film, with a performance for the ages from Lupita Nyong’o and brilliant comic timing from Winston Duke.
Directed by Jordan Peele
Odds are, if you are a fan of this site, and of horror movies, you were anxiously awaiting this movie. Good news, folks, it was absolutely worth waiting for. This movie is for Jordan Peele, the PROVE IT! film. It is a very different film from his landmark Get Out, but all the craft and care that he put into his first film also is evident in abundance in Us. If anything, he may have been a bit overambitious this time out, but the film is still stellar.
What this film does right, it really lands. It succeeds tremendously in Eric’s #1 rule, you care about the protagonists deeply. This is a group of people that you can really get behind, and in a fun twist, that same group of actors becomes scary as hell.
We are introduced to young Adelaide (Madison Currie), and her parents at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk in 1986, a place that I am intimately familiar with having played endless rounds of Skee-ball with my grandfather back in the early eighties and riding the famous Big Dipper roller coaster, so Jordan Peele, you had me from the jump. Adelaide wanders off from her intoxicated father, into a mirrored fun-house, and encounters… herself, a dark and shadowy other self.
Adelaide is eventually found, but she is clearly hugely affected by her encounter, and her parents are unable to come up with a means to connect with her after the encounter.
Flash forward to the present, and we meet Adelaide as an adult (Lupita Nyong’o), and her family, the Wilsons. Winston Duke has an absolute star-making turn as her husband Gabe, full of playfulness and awesome dad jokes. Her tween daughter Zara (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is your typical depiction of a young teenager, always plugged in and tuned out, and the awkward young son, Jason (Evan Alex) is prone to hiding in closets and wearing a werewolf mask.
The family chemistry is, as Mike Campbell would say, straight out of Spielberg central casting. They may bicker and tease each other a bit, but they really feel like a rock-solid family who loves each other. Gabe suggests that they join their friends the Tylers for a vacation at their beach house near the coast. This sends Adelaide into flashback PTSD mode, and she clearly has not discussed her fears with anyone, including her husband… so she goes along silently fearing what may come.
After setting up at their cabin retreat, they travel to the boardwalk to meet up with the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) for some awkward conversations and they manage to lose Jason who wanders off and spots a creepy bleeding homeless guy on the beach. (There is a bait and switch moment where I suspected that Jason was going to wander into the same funhouse his mother had stumbled into as a child.) This sets Adelaide into full panic mode, and they retreat back to their cabin, where Adelaide confesses her fears to Gabe.
It’s at that moment that they arrive. The “Us” in Us. A family in red stands outside their home, and after standing menacingly for a while, proceed to break into the cabin. This is a family of doppelgängers, mirror versions of themselves. Like evil Spock! OK… better than evil Spock, but this has strong echoes of many great Star Trek or Comic Book stories where the heroes run into their shadowy opposites.
Nyong’o also plays Red, the leader of the other family, and her performance goes full wild-eyed manic. Red is absolutely mesmerizing and menacing, and her raspy croak will be no doubt mimicked for years to come. This is one of the strongest female villains we’ve seen in horror movies in a very long time.
Gabe’s opposite is Abraham, a hulking brute, and the muscle behind Red’s ambitions. Jason’s evil twin is Pluto, a pyromaniac who looks like he popped out of the Borderlands game. Zara’s mirror is Umbrae, a cocky and hyper-athletic ninja. OK, we’ve introduced our fighters. Bring it!
This third of the four acts is a full-on home invasion, that rivals You’re Next, and Don’t Breathe for sheer intensity and hold-your-breath thrills. Of course, everyone squares off with their opposite, and it’s a furious and intense affair. Of course, when you are fighting yourself, your opponent has a tendency to know what you might be planning. Brilliant!
It becomes clear after a bit, that there are much larger forces at work. As I suggested, this movie feels like it has four acts, and is not the conventional three-act drama. Up through the first three acts, this feels like an extremely well made conventional horror movie with some great twists, and there is a bit of an awkward realization, that the movie conclusion isn’t going to be where you typically expect it to happen. At an hour and 56 minutes, it is a little long as horror movies go, so the final act feels a bit like extra innings.
The fourth act goes full-on Annihilation think-piece, and you’ll need to be ready for that. I am still puzzling my way through the multitude of metaphors that Peele put into play at the conclusion of the movie. Film school nerds will break this portion of the movie down to its constituent bits and come up with some enlightened conclusions, I’m sure. I remained a little baffled. Elements of ballet, Hands Across America, Rabbits, and escalators become powerful images that assault your senses.
I know there is a You-Tube site that touts “What the End of Movie “X” Means.” I think in this case you can draw some of your own conclusions, but there are a couple of doozy reveals unloaded, one of which was an “Oh I totally should have seen that coming!” moment.
I would like to single out Winston Duke for a moment. He is not an actor with a ton of credits behind his name, and his breakout moment as M’Baku in Black Panther showed a lot of promise for his career, but THIS movie proves that he has serious leading man chops. As physically imposing as he is, he also showed that he can be vulnerable, funny, and really subtle. I hope that he is selective about his movies going forward, as he should be an actor in much demand. Think Mahershala Ali as a good model for a path for him to emulate.
Nyong’o, who has been approaching superstar status, didn’t need the validation as much, but by carrying the emotional weight of this film, and playing both sides of the coin, she secures her stature as being one of the most in-demand actresses around. With Duke, the two of them are a fantastic pair, and it is not surprising that they not only starred together in Black Panther but also went to Yale Drama school at the same time. I hope that Peele keeps the two of them around for more work!
As much as I loved Duke and Nyong’o parts, the sections involving the kids were a little underdeveloped by comparison. Part of that is due to how outstanding and entertaining the parents were, but the children seemed to be a little less fleshed out. One other nitpick… there is no way that Adelaide or Gabe are in their mid-forties, which would be their age if she was a teenager in 1986, as shown in the first act.
Judging by the packed house we got for the early screener, I suspect this is going to be a huge hit. Already, the critical reaction has been fantastic, but don’t be surprised if some people find the conclusion to be a bit too much of a mind bender for their taste. That, and I’m still trying to figure out what’s up with all the rabbits. So, the movie falls short of perfection, but it remains a damned fine horror movie.
Us is rated R for visceral violence, and language. This film opens wide in the United States on Thursday. Support quality horror movies! Go see this! Mr. Peele, I’m sure you’re reading this: My plea to you is that you stay within the genre, you have the feel for this, and you will continue to elevate horror to the respectability we long for.
Here is the Second trailer. And, don’t worry it doesn’t really give any big spoilers.