On the one hand, wunderkind director Jordan Peele is a master of suspense and tension, leading us through an onslaught of unsettling truths and fictions alongside terrifying madness in Us, the followup to his 2017 smash hit Get Out. On the other, the logistics of his new film's narrative elements unravel just enough to leave us with unanswered questions despite a chilling and satisfying conclusion. If Get Out represented the loss of power, Us is the rise to re-obtain it, though Peele takes us deeper and darker than his previous work, and more capably so.
We follow the Wilsons, a typical family in Northern California, as they hit their Santa Cruz beach house for summer vacation. Adelaide, the mother (Lupita Nyong'o in, believe it or not, her first-ever leading role), grew up there, and a haunting event from childhood still follows her despite a loving husband (Black Panther alum Winston Duke) and children (Evan Alex as the son and the beyond talented Shahadi Wright Joseph as the daughter). It's enough to drive Adelaide and the family out of Santa Cruz altogether, but before they can actually leave, mysterious doppelgängers stage a violent home invasion, thrusting the Wilsons into a nightmare as horrendous as it is baffling.
Peele patiently doles out the breadcrumbs, leaving the lead-up to the major events of Us feeling decidedly more tense than the events themselves. But then, the evil is always scarier before we've identified it, yes? With brilliant use of sound design and soundtrack, he toys with our emotions and expectations, creating a sort of Pavlovian response to song and audio cues. Nyong'o's performance is flawless throughout, lending sympathy to her core character and a quiet monstrosity to her shadow self. Other such mirror characters provide scares as well, but none reach the sublime and subdued insanity of a dead-eyed Nyong'o staring carefully into her own eyes, even if Joseph's wide-eyed and cold smile as the alternate daughter does follow us to the grave.
A sparse but vital supporting cast wows as well, like Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker (far better known as a comedian) as the friends with the sad rosé jokes and the barely contained ugliness bubbling up from someplace dark within them. We kind of hate them, and we definitely think we're supposed to.
But then we reach the finish line, where (no spoilers) we're supposed to accept and process a lot of confusing information rather quickly, some of which pushes our willingness to suspend our disbelief to the breaking point. As an allegory for classist barriers, Peele is right on the money with Us; its more subtle statements, however, may be lost somewhere in the classic horror shuffle.
Then again, perhaps we're indulging in semantics and ought to just enjoy the ride—or watch it again a few times knowing what we know of its plot. Because it's a complete joy getting there, and we include Peele's rise to become one of the most important directors of our time. We can only imagine what comes next.
+Haunting and masterful
-You'll probably see the twist coming
Directed by Peele
With Nyong'o, Duke, Joseph and Alex
Violet Crown, Regal, R, 116 min.