Review: “Us”

4 OUT OF 5 STARS.

In his first feature film “Get Out,” writer and director Jordan Peele explored the horrific relationship between white America and black America.  In his second feature, “Us,” Peele holds that mirror up to society as a whole, using more of a traditional horror film approach to show how we repress the darker underbelly of our world, and of ourselves.

The film follows a family of four as they travel to their beach house for summer vacation.  Father Gabe (Winston Duke) wants to take their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to Santa Cruz for the day, but his wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is terrified by the memory of getting lost at the amusement park there as a child.  They go, but strange occurrences slowly begin happening and Adelaide’s anxiety increases until that evening their home is invaded by a family—a family who are their exact doppelgangers.

“Us” is a film that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you take it at face value.  Peele doesn’t do the audience the disservice of explaining how it all works, but rather emphasizes the unsettling emotions that come from the experience.  The doppelgangers themselves are sinister; they don’t speak, they wear identical red jumpsuits, and carry shears.  They mimic their human counterparts in almost every way.  The horror of being confronted by this darker version of yourself, and the fight to repress it as it struggles to take control, is what propels much of the film.  This theme can be interpreted on both a personal and global level; in America, for instance, there are taboo issues that are swept under the rug, and certain classes and races of people who are oppressed and ignored but, as “Us” points out,” are tethered to us and our actions regardless.  We learn some of where these beings come from, and a little of how they survived all this time, but ultimately aren’t encouraged to overthink it, and that’s okay, because the film leaves the viewer with plenty to ponder and interpret how they will.

Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide in “Us”

“Us” takes on more of the horror film genre not just in the appearance of the doppelgangers, but in the format of the film.  There are plenty of jump scares and slasher style violence, and there are some tense moments leading up to all that, thanks in part to a fantastically creepy score by Michael Abels. The lighting and cinematography also help turn locations that are typically fun (the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, for example) into scenes of horror.  But a lot of the seriousness is broken up by the dark sense of humor that Peele brings to the story.  It’s often humorous but occasionally misplaced, and after a while you find the audience chuckling at scenes that don’t feel like they were intended to be funny.  If “Us” has a big flaw, it’s this: that many scenes could have packed more of a punch had they not been played for laughs.

The cast is great however, as they balance not only both the fear and humor, but also playing both their characters and their characters’ doppelgangers.  Joseph and Alex are two young actors with a lot of promise, and Duke shows prowess with his comedic side as he takes on the more light-hearted half of the scenes.  The cast also includes Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as Kitty and Josh, the family’s frivolous and wealthy friends who own a neighboring beach house, and who make an impact in their brief appearance in the film.  But the movie truly belongs to Nyong’o.  This film may have a message for all of us, but it’s primarily Adelaide’s story.  Nyong’o flawlessly makes the transition from anxious and scared to courageous and confident, jumping into action without hesitation when her family is at risk.  Nyong’o puts the full range of her talents on display, as Adelaide is forced to confront her terrifying past while vowing to protect her family from it, whatever the cost.  Not to mention that she must don another, completely different persona as her doppelganger, Red.  It’s the sort of complex role that Nyong’o has deserved for a long time, and she pulls it off beautifully.

“Us” often looks and feels like a horror film, but the story’s weirdness is tackled in a “Twilight Zone”-esque way, more so than “Get Out,” which look and feels more grounded in reality.  That’s pretty appropriate, considering that Peele allegedly based “Us” on an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and that his reboot of the same show will be released mere weeks from now.  With “Get Out” and now “Us,” Peele has shown us that he has a lot to say, and that he knows how he wants to say it.

Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated R.

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