Jordan Peele returns to horror with 'Us'

The film is a more ambitious work than Peele’s ‘Get Out,’ but despite some extraordinary sequences, it’s also a lesser work.

Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures/AP
'Us' stars (from l.) Evan Alex, Lupita Nyong'o, and Shahadi Wright Joseph.

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut feature “Get Out” was one of the most inventive horror movies in years, and so the expectations for his sophomore effort, “Us,” have been running sky-high. It too is a horror film with a light overlay of gallows humor, but it’s a more ambitious work than “Get Out.” Despite some extraordinary sequences, it’s also a lesser work.

The film opens in 1986 in an amusement park in the oceanside city of Santa Cruz, California. A young girl, Adelaide Wilson (Madeline Curry), wanders off from her parents and enters a seemingly deserted hall of mirrors where she encounters, to traumatizing effect, not only her own reflection but a doppelganger of herself.

Cut to the present day, and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is living what appears to be a comfortably middle-class suburban life with her affable husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and  two spunky children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). When Gabe proposes a summer vacation stayover in Santa Cruz, she balks at the bad memories but reluctantly goes along. Soon enough, bad stuff happens, leading to the film’s first true explosion of horror: One night, outside the Wilsons’ summer home, a family of red robe-wearing Wilson doppelgangers, clutching razor-sharp scissors, are silently massed in the driveway ready to attack.

As we soon see, the four actors are playing dual roles, themselves and their malevolent doubles. The home invasion is brutal, bloody, and unrelenting. Adelaide’s double, who speaks in hoarse, spasmodic, guttural tones, is especially menacing. The murderousness continues as the Wilsons, seeking refuge in the nearby home of vacationing friends, played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss, are aghast to discover that they also have been invaded by doppelgangers.

This is one of the few horror movies to feature an African-American family, and, especially given the racial-satirical slant of “Get Out,” we might expect the same slant here. However, Peele is going after bigger allegorical game. But what exactly is the allegory that Peele is pushing? In the 1986 prologue, he makes reference to the Hands Across America benefit event that was intended to raise millions for those who are hungry and homeless. The death-dealing doppelgangers in “Us,” who are soon proliferating everywhere, likewise hold hands. There are several references to a Bible passage in Jeremiah 11:11 with words “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape.” White rabbits turn up.

Instead of specifically targeting racial animosities, Peele seems to be going after the doubleness of a society in which everyone has their dark side they refuse to acknowledge. Speaking recently to an audience at the South By Southwest film festival, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, he said as much: “On the broader strokes of things, this movie is about this country. And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken with the fact that we are in a time when we fear the other, whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us, take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face.”

The problem is, the movie is so chockablock with horror tropes and fright-night symbolism that it often comes across as nothing more than a smorgasbord of scare effects. There’s a deeper problem: Peele may think he is slamming all factions for not facing the beast within, but the way he goes after the Wilsons here is especially punitive. Their middle-classness is used against them. He sets a squadron of monsters on them for, it would appear, nothing more flagrant than indulging in materialism and social media. Are we supposed to think that the Wilsons’ privilege is won at the expense of the poor and the forgotten? As an allegory, not to mention as a social construct, how does the situation in “Us” – as in “United States,” get it? – reflect this country? Ambition in the horror genre can be a good thing, but the overreach in this movie detracts from both the horror and the ambition.

Having said that, Peele shows a marked advance in filmmaking skills here and, in her dual role, Nyong’o is ferociously good. Coming as it does after Toni Collette in “Hereditary” and Emily Blunt in “A Quiet Place,” her performance would appear to officially herald a golden age for fullscale performances in a long-derided genre.

Talented as he is, I hope that Peele, who also is behind TV’s upcoming “Twilight Zone” reboot, doesn’t seek to position himself as the new M. Night Shyamalan, complete with gotcha effects and trapdoor finales. His satiric-horrific take on society, which sporadically breaks through “Us,” is a rare gift. Rarer, perhaps, than he himself realizes. Grade: B (Rated R for violence/terror and language.)

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