Jordan Peele's "Us" Is Monumental Horror

There’s a family in our driveway.

Thirty minutes into the two-hour “Us,” writer-director Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) puts his foot on the gas and scarcely lets up for the duration. No Oscar-winner resting on his laurels here. The comedian-turned-auteur pushes his chips to the center of the table, delivering the kind of big, breakneck horror fable that drops into theaters all too infrequently. It is the inverse of a sophomore slump.

Where “Get Out” pinged between comedy, horror, and social commentary, all of these ingredients are baked in together in “Us,” thickening into a formidable crust of psychological terror. It comments on anxiety and violence and the bleakest corners of American history in a way that rises high above the pic’s first blush of on-the-nose symbolism. Universal’s ad campaign and its use of inkblots is apt, but at the same time doesn’t quite get across the figurative and literal depth of what the filmmaker is getting at here.

A black family of four coming face to face with distorted versions of themselves is terrific thought experiment dripping with potential. Peele wrings it dry.

Adelaide and Gabe Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) are vacationing with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) in sunny Santa Cruz, California. A road trip to their beach house culminates in a brief parental dispute over whether or not to visit the local boardwalk. Dad’s pro-boardwalk guilt trip wins out, and the family links up there with friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and two teenage daughters.

But the sight of a boardwalk funhouse, where Adelaide had a disturbing encounter as a young girl, jogs something loose in our lead. A fun family getaway turns cloudy.

Having already established Adelaide’s childhood trauma (an inexplicable 1986 house of mirrors encounter with a doppelgänger) in the film’s opening, Peele is free to focus on his characters and world building for the bulk of act one. What feels slow in the moment pays off hugely when the shit hits the fan – and keeps hitting the fan for the next ninety minutes. We couldn’t be more squarely in the Wilsons’ corner when, late at night, a family dressed in red appears silently in their driveway.

As the filmmaker has noted in several interviews, this scene marks a noticeable shift to real-time storytelling, crucial to kickstarting a breathless thirty-minute stretch that spares not a moment for a popcorn run. This is no typical home invasion. It turns surreal in a flash, Adelaide and Gabe and their children coming face to face with menacing interpolations of themselves. These lookalikes refer to themselves as “the tethered,” shadow versions of the Wilsons; undesirables forced to live in underground tunnels, unwittingly mimicking their counterparts’ movements via ritualistic writhing – and subsisting on rabbit meat.

Of course, suspension of disbelief is crucial with this kind of material, but Peele earns every bit of ours, fully committing to his story and shrewdly inserting reminders that what we’re seeing is absolutely happening to these characters – that it’s not some infernal fever dream.

Once the Wilsons barely make it out of their beach house alive, the movie becomes even bigger and nastier than expected, working its way to a finale where all its themes come to a lusty crescendo.

Unlike so many recent blockbusters that have used and abused nostalgia, Peele wields ’80s and ’90s cultural references not sentimentally but in service of his narrative. An early reference to 1986 public charitable event Hands Across America plays a crucial, creepy role in how the tethered commemorate their newfound independence.

1995 hip-hop hit “I Got 5 On It” inhabits a similar role, played diegetically in act one before mutating into a string version that scores the film’s climax. The rap version is itself interpolated from a 1986 R&B track, making it the perfect accompaniment to a decades-in-the-making clash between a woman and a hissing, scrambled version of herself. It’s touches like these that elevate the piece above standard genre fare, revealing layer upon layer upon layer of meticulous subtext. (The final stretch of Peele’s screenplay could have gone with a little less exposition and a little more ambiguity, but it’s still quite effective.)

“Us” can certainly be taken as straight horror fare, with the atmosphere and scares to keep teens happy, not to mention absolutely fiendish pacing. N’yongo’s performance, particularly as the tethered version of Adelaide, is worth the ticket price alone. (It’s only spring and she already deserves serious Oscar buzz.) But burrow beneath the movie’s surface and a bottomless well of symbolism becomes apparent. Is “Us” about a comeuppance for America’s obsession with violence? Psychological repression? The conscious versus the subconscious mind? Systemic discrimination? The answer is all of the above, relying on audiences to comb through it all long after exiting the theater.

But through all the blistering allegory, perhaps most frightening of all is how the film’s use of mirrors extends to the audience, holding one up to each and every one of us. What you see just might scare you to death.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: March 22, 2019
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex
MPAA Rating: R (for violence/terror, and language)