By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
When we look in the mirror, what do we see? What do we choose to see? What darkness do we choose to ignore?
From an eerie pre-credit sequence in a house of mirrors to a spine-tinglingly ambiguous smile in the final minutes, “Us,” director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his instant classic “Get Out,” is an unnerving, fun and messy horror film. It is both obsessed with these questions of personal and national identity and comfortable letting the audience find its own answers.
Yes, “Us” is a horror movie. Don’t let that scare you away. Peele doubles down on the visceral terror and bloodshed for his sophomore feature, but, like in “Get Out,” the director has more on his mind than scares.
“Us” begins with a flashback to the summer of 1986, with a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) walking a Santa Cruz boardwalk with her less than attentive parents. Before long, Adelaide wanders off the boardwalk, onto the beach and into a house of mirrors. “Find yourself,” reads a sign over the door.
Adelaide finds herself lost among a barrage of reflections and the metaphorical promise of the entryway sign becomes literal. Adelaide comes face-to-face with a doppelganger of herself.
The film then cuts to the present day where we meet the Wilson family driving to a summer vacation destination. A now adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) lounges quietly in the passenger seat, her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) cracks dad jokes, while their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), stare out the window absentmindedly. Classic Americana.
But something is not right with Adelaide. Through flashbacks, it becomes clear that she was traumatized by the events of 1986. All these years later, she still fears her doppelganger is out to get her. The family’s vacation to Santa Cruz isn’t helping.
Her nightmare becomes a brutal reality when an entire family of doppelgangers shows up in the Wilsons’ driveway. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wielding golden scissors, these dark mirror versions of the Wilson family are malevolent, animalistic and hellbent on torturing their counterparts.
The actors, who play both versions of their characters, are, across the board, fantastic. Duke brings the perfect amount of affable, goofball charm and is the source of most of the movie’s well-timed comedic moments. Joseph and Alex rise above the child actor label to deliver excellent, grounded performances in the middle of all the madness.
But the movie belongs to Nyong’o. She delivers two totally different – yet equally stellar – performances as heroine and monster. Between Adelaide’s wide-eyed terror, buried trauma and fierce resolve and Red’s automaton movements, vacant yet calculating stare and haunting rasp, you would think two different actors were playing the roles.
The home invasion sequence is truly terrifying, and “Us” is chock full of finely-crafted horror set pieces. Peele has evolved as a director. The camera moves with balletic grace and the framing of certain shots just calls for freeze frame analysis. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis only helps bring out the best in Peele’s filmmaking.
Peele has made a fun, visceral scare machine, but, rest easy, he hasn’t lost his obsession with uniquely American nightmares.
“Us” is not concerned with race, at least not directly, but still has plenty to say. Sometimes too much. Peele’s sophomore film is more ambitious, packing three movies-worth of ideas into two hours.
The metaphor of the doppelganger is potent, if flexible, and while it would be a spoiler to say exactly what Peele is after here – hint: when asked who they are, Adelaide’s doppelganger responds, “We are Americans” – “Us” is as much a Rorschach test for the audience as it is a direct statement about any one idea.
The result is a less focused and much messier film than “Get Out,” one that doesn’t tie every loose thread or answer every question. For some, that will be frustrating, but, unlike with “Get Out,” a satisfying conclusion isn’t Peele’s intention here. If “Us” is about one thing, it’s the divisions we create between each other, how easy it is for us to point a finger at someone else when in essence they’re not that different from us. For every “us,” there’s a “them.”
A symbolic centerpiece of the film is Hands Across America, the 80s charity campaign that aimed to create a line of handholding Americans stretching across the nation. The dream of the campaign was unfulfilled, the chain pockmarked with gaps.
Peele takes that image and infests it with sinister significance. He looks at the bitter divides in America today and throughout history and points the finger back at us. When we were drawing the battle lines, did we bother to look in the mirror? The answer might be the movie’s biggest scare.