(*** 1/2)

" expertly crafted cinematic hall of mirrors drenched in sinister, provocative portent"

Us or U.S.?

(032419) “Who are you?” whispers Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) as her family of four is held hostage at their summer beach house by a family of exact doubles, dressed in matching red jumpsuits and armed with extremely sharp-looking shears. The gravelly reply that emerges from her doppelgänger’s throat—“We’re Americans”—is one of many enigmas that stay with you after seeing Us, the new horror movie from writer-director Jordan Peele. It’s a joke, in a way, though such a dark one that it doesn’t elicit a laugh in the moment as much as a gasp. It’s also one of the film’s few explicitly political lines, though its meaning in context remains elusive. There are meanings and metaphors all over the place in Us, but as an opening title tells us about the thousands of miles of tunnels winding under the surface of the United States, their purpose is sometimes unknown.

The dreaded sophomore slump is nowhere to be found in "Us," writer-director Jordan Peele's follow-up to 2017's "Get Out." That film—a blistering satire delving into the festering disease of cross-generational racism and prejudice—introduced a major new voice within the horror genre. Instead of repeating himself, Peele has conjured another fresh and frightening vision with altogether different but no less pertinent intentions. Viewers searching for easily digestible entertainment may be left bewildered by the harrowing, thematically suggestive places the story and characters go. For the rest of us, there is a veritable treasure trove of ideas and angles upon which to digest and analyze. Indeed, with each new challenging implication, the film deepens and unsettles all the more. This is a consequentially powerful piece of work.

Adelaide Wilson has come to stay at her family's summer home with husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex), but upon arriving she is unable to escape the ball of anxiety building within her. Their visit to the same Santa Cruz beach where she once suffered a traumatic childhood event is bad enough, but a series of uncanny occurrences and eerie coincidences suggest something particularly wicked is headed their way. Before Adelaide can convince Gabe to pack their bags and hit the road, her worst nightmare comes true: evil doppelgängers of the foursome arrive to invade their home and steal their very lives.

The less known about "Us" going into it, the better. The 1986 prologue—nostalgic of its era before sending a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) into the fateful mouth of a beachfront funhouse called Shaman's Vision Quest—is a creepy attention-grabber. Meanwhile, an opening television commercial promoting the idealistic Hands Across America campaign is certain to transport viewers of a certain age back in time even as the method to Jordan Peele's ingenious madness remains as yet unclear. How he builds upon his setup is rather remarkable, barreling far beyond home-invasion tropes to find a cast of characters whose lethal circumstances have coalesced with lifetimes of tethered privilege and disenfranchisement, deception and resentment.

Lupita Nyong'o (2018's "Black Panther") anchors the mounting terror with a realistic introverted gravitas as Adelaide, a fiercely protective mother who has always known, deep down inside, this day would come. Her performances—both as Adelaide and her double, credited as Red—find a stirring complexity in much the same way as Peele's momentously brazen screenplay. It could be argued Nyong’o is giving one of the best female horror lead performances ever, basically having to play both Michael Myers and Laurie Strode at the same time. Nyong'o is joined by an impeccably cast ensemble. As Gabe, Winston Duke (2018's "Avengers: Infinity War") has the part of the loving but corny dad down pat. Newcomers Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are terrific as the terrified Zora and Jason, finding a bravery inside themselves they never knew they had. And Elisabeth Moss (2015's "Queen of Earth"), as chatty, passive-aggressively unhappy family friend Kitty Tyler, is a brash, layered standout in a key supporting role.

Duplicitous yet unsuspectingly human, "Us" is an expertly crafted cinematic hall of mirrors drenched in sinister, provocative portent. Deep-diving explorations into the sheer scope of the picture's many meanings, metaphors are certain to be written, and deservedly so. The film, operating on a higher level than most, is intensely disquieting, and then, by its final minutes, something more—an aching, scary, tragic fable for our troubled times, pitting one fearful Other against another while shrewdly blurring the line between hero and villain.

So the last thing I’ll say about Us, besides “see it”: Peele is a born filmmaker who cares where the camera is placed, how a scene is lit and scored, what the props in the corner of the image suggest. This being a story about doubles, he’s constantly playing with reflection and repetition: Almost every scene in the first half finds its callback, or twin, in the second, whether in a horrific or humorous register. And when the biggest of many twists comes near the end of the film, requiring a reconsideration of everything that came before, it displaces the movie’s moral center in a way that leaves the viewer off-balance as well. We walk out of the theater seeing the people around us a little differently. Could they be our shadow selves? Are we theirs? Or are there other shadows out there, visions of ourselves and our society we can’t or won’t let ourselves see? The best horror movies are the ones where you leave the theater feeling a little uneasy and unsure.

Written/Directed by:  Jordan Peele
Starring:   Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Moss Elisabeth Moss
Released:  032219
Length:  116 minutes
Rating:   Rated R for violence/terror, and language.

US 2019 Monkey Paw Productions
Review © 2019 Alternate Reality, Inc.