Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
Rated R for violence/terror and language
1 hr., 56 mins.
When director Jordan Peele shed his role as partner in the Comedy Central sketch comedy series Key & Peele, he hit the ground running with his directorial debut in 2017’s Get Out.
In 2018, he became the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the first African American to be nominated for producing, writing and directing in the same year.
When you fly this high this fast, expectations are huge for the follow-up. How would he play it? Risky or safe? Comedy or more terror? Turns out he throws it all at us in a big wave of thought-provoking cinema. Big. Wave. As in Oahu’s North Shore.
It’s 1986 in Santa Cruz and a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her family at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Along a deserted section of the pier she pops into a hall of mirrors and discovers that there is someone just like her staring back from the glass. In flashbacks, we discover that Adelaide was so frightened, she stopped talking and had to be placed in therapy.
Present day, the Wilson family — father Gabe (Winston Duke), mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) — are taking a vacation in Santa Cruz. Adelaide is already nervous just being here. When Gabe suggests the family take a trip to the beach, she starts having flashbacks.
When she finally agrees to go, the Wilsons meet up with friends Kitty Tyler (Elizabeth Moss), Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters Lindsey (Noelle Sheldon) and Becca (Cali Sheldon). In a case of déjà vu, Jason wanders from his family and sees a man with blood dripping down his fingers standing on the beach. His family panics when they discover he’s missing. Adelaide is frantic when she finds him and warns him to stay close so she can protect him.
That night, as the family prepares for bed, Jason walks in and innocently asks his parents why people are standing in their driveway? It turns out they are Wilson doppelgängers of a strange sort. Abraham (Gabe), Red (Adelaide), Umbrae (Zora) and Pluto (Jason). All wearing red overalls. Grotesque in appearance. Red is the only one who can speak and her voice is barely a whisper. It’s a home invasion in which doppelgängers seek revenge on their real-world counterparts.
Us is more than just a horror movie and Peele has more in mind than just entertainment. He is ambitious enough to probe human nature both on a visual and a psychological level. He wants to push the boundaries of the horror genre without forsaking his comedy roots. The result is a film that is multilayered, addressing racial and social issues, all while bludgeoning the audience with shocking violence and sharp comedy. He has a lot to say and two hours to say it. Get ready to be pelted.
The problem is, how fast can you digest what’s coming at you? And do all these ideas clog up the story? You have to work hard in this movie, as he plays with themes like the old Hands Across America campaign, caged rabbits, Jeremiah 11:11, and an add-on about a secret government experiment gone awry with doppelgängers left to languish in underground tunnels. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Serena Williams returning tennis volleys and you on the other side of the net without a racket.
Us excels as a horror movie. I’m not sure that the other underlying themes will be as clear, but there’s plenty of room for discussion. While it may not all make sense, it’s one of those films in which half the fun of watching is the post-movie debate. Rabbits or scripture? Red or Pluto? And who really is Adelaide? Get ready to argue. This movie invites it.