Written and Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Whatever notions you have about Jordan Peele’s ability to scare you, put them out of your mind right now. Sure, you could fall in to the easy trap that his latest film “Us” is made of the same cloth as his freshmen effort, “Get Out.”
“Us” is nothing like “Get Out,” other than there are really solid characters and a story that’s going to make you think very hard. There is nothing in Mr. Peele’s story that doesn’t have some sort of function as the story progresses.
Mr. Peele starts us out with a series of title cards that talks about a series of abandoned caves and tunnels running all throughout the United States. These title cards are important in providing you guidance. And, before we know it, they’re gone in a blink to be replaced by a TV blaring 1980’s style commercials with numerous bits of details that give us a glimpse into young Adelaide’s (Madison Curry) life at that moment.
A trip to the Santa Cruz boardwalk results in a moment of trauma for Adelaide as she is separated from her parents. Instead of dwelling on the trauma, Peele fast forwards us to the present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is a happily married woman with two kids, Zora and Jason, along with a husband, Gabe (Winston Duke).
They have returned to Santa Cruz for a well-earned vacation. As the family settles in, we would expect some tension and Ms. Nyong’o expertly holds that tension back as best as she can, but we can feel her discomfort. Gabe isn’t helping matters as he tries to have fun. Interestingly, both Jason and Zora seem very detached as they also settle in.
Mr. Peele layers in a number of idiosyncratic details, not to derail us, but to heighten the tension. And it works. Gabe is off having his fun (it kind of reminded me when I act like a fool, but I digress), the kids are off their own little world and when they catch up with the Tylers at the beach, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) is a typical elitist trophy wife. She and Adelaide get along, despite Adelaide’s distance. She finally breaks her silence while Josh (Tim Heidecker) really gets along with Gabe like two peas in a pod.
All of this leads up to the eventual arrival of nearly exacting duplicates of the Wilsons. After what looks like a standoff at the OK Corral, the duplicates take the Wilsons into their home and Mr. Peele uses these moments for Red, also played by Ms. Nyong’o, to explain why they are present in that moment.
It is as the explanation unfolds, that we are treated to Adelaide’s reaction as a child following her brief disappearance that night on the boardwalk. Mr. Peele achieves two objectives: he sets us up for the second act and he reinforces the tension of what is about to unfold. Each of the cast pulls double duty and because the characters are so wildly different, it only adds to the creepiness and the tension.
There are many highlights to Mr. Peele’s sophomore effort. He is a magician in a very good way. He is part Hitchcock: we get the set ups and the right angles to convince us that we’re seeing something completely different than what’s actually being shown, building the tension. Mr. Peele is also part Rod Serling. These two traits are not unlike what he presented us in “Get Out.”
It is the third trait that he folds into his fray in “Us,” that of Chris Carter. I liked the elements Mr. Peele brings with this aspect of his pallet. However, his paint brush was probably just a bit too fine because the three elements don’t always work together as much as the tension and the technical side of Mr. Peele’s talents would have us believe and boy do I believe!
Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” from this past January there are numerous elements in “Us” that just don’t quite gel together. That’s not to say that we aren’t terrified and horrified and very much wowed by the talent he does display.
There’s a moment where Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays to a beautifully choreographed dance routine. It is elegiac; it is pure beauty inside of a horrific situation. It is refined in a situation that unravels very quickly. And behind it all is Ms. Nyong’o, full of grace and dignity, adding a level of horror within her performance.
Mr. Peele has shown us the door to a horror that I don’t think any of us could quite possibly have imagined. His paint brush was probably just a bit too ambitious for this particular story, but the acting and the technical craftsmanship on display in “Us” is by far some of the strongest I’ve seen this year.
3 out of 4 stars