“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.” - Jeremiah 11:11
When I was a young child, my doppelgänger was a child actor from some goofy commercial for Triscuits.
Seriously, I would be stopped on the street all the time by people who would point at me and say with complete and utter enthusiam "Hey, you're that kid from the Triscuit commercial."
I wasn't that kid from the Triscuit commercial. I was just an ordinary kid with spina bifida who walked with crutches and grew up going to my neighborhood Kingdom Hall alongside a mother who seemed desperate to find some sort of salvation in a life that hadn't quite turned out the way she'd planned.
Us opens back in 1986, with a young girl (Madison Curry) and her parents walking along the Santa Cruz boardwalk after dark. It's a picturesque scene, beautiful really, until those foreboding thunderclouds roll in and the young girl's eyes wander toward something far off in the distance.
She walks toward it.
She walks into something akin to a hall of mirrors, an inexplicable place where she encounters something else terrifying - her doppelgänger.
The little girl is an adult woman now, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), traveling back to the beach alongside her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex).
Understandably, Adelaide is hesitant. The dutiful Gabe is appropriately compassionate toward her, perhaps leaning toward cynical and dismissive.
But, this is a chance for the family to get away and to catch up with old friends the Tylers, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The trouble being, of course, that Adelaide doesn't particularly care for the hard-partying Josh or his alcohol-driven wife.
Writer/director Jordan Peele teases us a bit with an ever so slight scare and a few weird happenings as the two families meet up, though it's only when the Adelaide and her family are tucked in for the night that past becomes present and their beach home becomes invaded by the mysterious presence of doppelgängers of themselves.
Us is not Get Out.
If you go into Us expecting another Get Out you will be disappointed unless, of course, you happened to be one of the few who didn't particularly care for Get Out.
Jordan Peele has stories to tell. He has things to say, but it's apparent now that they're not all going to fall neatly within any particular genre or school of cinema. Peele is not trying to be Kubrick or Hitchcock or Scorsese or anyone, though he's also not shy about paying gentle homage to those who have influenced him.
But, nah. Jordan Peele is a cinematic beast all his own. Us is a Jordan Peele film that feels like a Jordan Peele film even though we're still learning exactly what that means. It's not a Black film in the way that Get Out was a Black film, though the fact that the film is centered around a Black family isn't some coincidence or casual decision. The fact that Us has a Black family at its core makes everything that unfolds all that more powerful if you're paying attention.
You should be paying attention.
Us is less jolting than Get Out. It's also less surprising, though that's as much because we already now know that Peele can direct and we already now know that he's willing to make a bold motion picture.
There's no surprises to be had there.
Us is a more accessible film, likely to be even more successful than its predecessor. It's a little messier, though it needs to be and there's barely a choice in it that doesn't feel intentionally made.
We need to talk about Nyong'o, whom we might have also been tempted to dismiss as a one-hit wonder after Twelve Years A Slave, who gives here a performance far greater than that for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. It's a bold, nuanced and creative performance that deserves acclaim that is unfortunately likely to never come other than via the increased exposure that will come with being the featured performer in a critically acclaimed box-office success such as Us.
Nyong'o is the stand-out here. For reasons not initially obvious, only Adelaide's doppelgänger is prone to speaking. Identified only as Red, she is brought vividly to life by Nyong'o, whose ability to capture both the shadow and the light within her dual characters is astounding. Utilizing some sort of weird, creepy but not quite terrifying raspy croak of a voice, Nyong'o seemingly finds an inner demon and does a dance with her.
While Nyong'o is the standout here, Us is an amazing ensemble effort. Duke vacillates between a sort of doofus, all-American father who's climbed his way up to upper middle-class and the sort of guttural, moaning primitive presence of a darkness that you know means something even if you don't completely understand it right away.
You feel it in your bones. You feel Winston Duke's performance in your bones.
The same is true even for the kids, often throwaway roles in traditional horror but fully realized here. Both Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex give tremendous performances as they come face-to-face with their younger shadows and are faced with either escaping them or destroying them. In supporting roles, both Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker disturbingly shine.
Us is a refreshingly complete horror film, a far more traditional horror film than Peele's predecessor and a film that excels thanks to Mike Goulakis's stellar lensing and an original score by Michael Abels that amps up then amps up again. Peele understands and embraces that the entire cinematic vision matters, not just effective scares and chills but precisely framed ones that are beautifully shot. Peele understands that the story matters and the characters matter and the more invested you are the more frightened you become.
Us goes places you expect. Us goes places you don't quite expect. You're never quite as surprised as you were with Get Out, though that's really an unfair comparison as that film had an entirely different purpose and we were all still getting used to the idea that funnyman Peele had some remarkably serious things to say.
Fortunately for all of us, Peele's still talking.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic