It’s common practice for critics to file their reviews as quickly as possible during film festivals, sometimes going straight from the theater to the laptop in the hotel room. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that for Us. I needed time to process Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning directorial debut Get Out, but even a few days after the film premiered to a rapturous crowd during SXSW, I still don’t know what to make it. Put another way, when asked by a friend what I thought of Us the next day, I replied, “It’s good, but…”
Us begins in 1986, when young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) wanders off from her parents during a trip to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. While decked out in a Thriller t-shirt, because the ’80s, she wanders into an unsettling attraction away from the rest of the beachside fun and games. It’s a hall of mirrors, where Adelaide sees herself… but also not herself.
From there, the action cuts to the present, where Adelaide is now played by Lupita Nyong’o; she has a husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), and together the family travels back to the boardwalk to meet with their friends, Kitty and Josh (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). Adelaide is already on edge about returning to the sight of a traumatic childhood incident — although we don’t know exactly what happened in the hall of mirrors — and after noticing an odd number of “coincidences,” she’s ready to end the vacation early and go home. That’s when we get the chilling moment from the trailer:
“There’s a family in our driveway.”
Peele, who’s the sole credited screenwriter on the film, has set up a delicious horror movie premise, and things only get creepier from there when the Wilsons are held hostage by their doppelgängers. It’s genuinely thrilling watching Nyong’o (the film’s MVP; it’s a Toni Collette in Hereditary-level performance) play both “Good” Adelaide and “Bad” Adelaide, who speaks with a rasp and refers to her kind as the Tethered, and Duke is nearly as good as a dorky dad and a hulking brute. Everything I’ve mentioned so far takes place in the first half of the film — I’d be remiss to explain the plot any further, because half the fun of Us is seeing what surprises Peele has for, well, us. And Us is surprising: it’s home invasion horror, where the monsters carry scissors instead of machetes, but it also becomes so much more. And that’s where the “but…” comes in.
Us is full of genuine scares, award-worthy performances (Tim Heidecker does something that had me howling), and a chilling score (don’t worry, there’s an “I Got 5 on It” reprise), but as the film progresses, the story gets a little messy. It’s one of those movies where you walk out after wondering whether you missed something, or if the script needed an extra scene or five percent more exposition.
There will inevitably be countless explanations over What It All Means — especially the line, “We’re Americans” — and maybe that’s the point, about how we’re fractured individuals living in a time of chaos and the person we should fear the most isn’t an Other; it’s ourselves. But the message doesn’t come together in an entirely satisfactory way. It gets overshadowed by the indelible imagery. (Us would almost work better as a silent film, or as an old-school VHS that gets played so many times that the picture and sound become warped and woozy. Or maybe I was just happy to see a copy of C.H.U.D. on VHS at the beginning of the movie.)
That being said, I applaud Peele for making a more challenging, anxious, and ambitious film than Get Out, while still retaining much of his debut’s popcorn sensibility. In many ways, it reminded me of Annihilation, minus the screaming bear. Us is also funnier and more playful than Get Out and full of jump-out-of-your-seat scares (not to be confused with cheap jump scares; Peele is better than that, even if he does occasionally dip into horror movie cliches, like a child’s drawing of their personal Boogeyman).
Fittingly, Us is a movie that deserves to be seen twice, once to take it all in, and again to pick up all the clues that you missed the first time. It will make you “scared and laugh and think and challenge you” both viewings, as Peele explained during SXSW, even if it’s less of a masterpiece than a mostly-but-not-completely triumphant sophomore effort from a singular writer and director. (Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot can’t get here soon enough.)
There’s one more thing to know about Us. The Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 is invoked several times throughout the film. It reads: “Therefore this is what the LORD says: I am about to bring upon them a disaster that they cannot escape. They will cry out to Me, but I will not listen to them.” Start thinking about the meaning behind that now. The head start helps.
‘Us’ opens in theaters nationwide on March 22nd.