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.