Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Universal releases the film on Friday, March 22.
Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut “Get Out” was a landmark in African-American storytelling, broke box-office records, and served as a representational wakeup call to the film industry — but it wouldn’t have carried so much weight if it weren’t also such a gratifying viewing experience. His sophomore effort, “Us,” proves that surprise hit wasn’t a fluke. Peele’s second outing as writer-director confronts the ridiculously high expectations of its predecessor by pivoting to a broader canvas of ideas about the nation’s fractured identity. In the process, it gives audiences exactly what they want by delivering what they least expect.
As it turns out, the ultimate zeitgeist movie in 2019 harkens back more than 30 years. “Us” imports Reagan-era America to a mortifying contemporary context that revisits the past as a nightmare that won’t die. In the process, it unfolds as a satisfying dose of relentless, anxiety-inducing survival antics designed to keep viewers perpetually uneasy, and moves so quickly that they can only consider the deeper undercurrents after the credits roll.
The vehicle for all of this is a brilliant home-invasion thriller laced with cultural reference points stretching back to the late ’80s, and a smorgasbord of first-rate visceral cinematic scares. Think “Funny Games” collided with Cronenbergian body horror and Hitchockian suspense, and you’re maybe halfway there.
Before “Us” settles into its grounded first act, opening credits explain there are thousands of abandoned tunnels hiding under the country’s exterior; there’s also a fleeting commercial for Hands Across America that revisits that bizarre 1986 national fundraiser, when six million people formed a human chain to raise money for homelessness. The movie’s ability to forge its sinister premise in this phenomenon inspires the audience to read into every moment, but the relentless pace won’t let you catch your breath.
The stunt attracted widespread celebrity approval, with no less than Michael Jackson taking a central role in its publicity. “Us” opens in the midst of that year, as a young black family explores a beachside carnival, and young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders off. It only takes a matter of minutes for Peele to land on the movie’s first astounding cultural vision, the sight of a disturbed black adolescent wearing an oversized “Thriller” t-shirt and gazing out at the stormy sea. Later, Adelaide discovers an abandoned hall of mirrors with a shimmering yellow sign beckoning visitors to “FIND YOURSELF.” She wanders in, and comes face to face with a child who looks exactly like her. Horror buffs may realize that Alexandre Aja’s “Mirrors” touched on similar doppelganger fears, but they’re merely a starting point here.
“Us” deserves its best surprises to remain unspoiled, but even its first-act setup hardly reveals its final destination. As Peele leaves the story’s first abrupt twist unresolved, he cuts to the present-day, when Adelaide has grown to become a nurturing mother (Lupita Nyong’o, impressive as always) traveling to a Northern California beach house with her husband Gabe (a cheery Winston Duke) and their young kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The script takes its time developing the family’s more endearing qualities. Jason unleashes his rascally energy as he bounds around the house in a Halloween mask, Gabe can’t stop obsessing with his low-rent boat, and Adelaide rolls her eyes. Add a laugh track and this may as well be a sitcom.
But that’s temporary. When the family heads to the beach, hanging with their affluent neighbors Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), “Us” seems to be heading toward a class-based variation on “Get Out,” with a series of cringe-inducing conversations between two very different families. But at nightfall, Adelaide has just enough time to revisit her childhood fears before they literally return to haunt her: There’s a red-clad family unit that looks exactly like hers, standing outside. It doesn’t take long for these figures to take charge of the household, forcing the relatives to splinter in various directions as their growling reflections pursue them, brandishing golden scissors and vacant stares. Plenty of blood-spattered showdowns ensue, with ample payoff that keeps moving ahead, but even as this deranged setup takes flight, “Us” has a grander agenda ahead.
Peele has somehow developed an uncanny ability to explore how past cultural events can take ominous new dimensions in the present: The leitmotif of faceless Americans joining hands in an endless show of empty solidarity is a provocative setup, but Peele’s script keep digging into its ramifications. “What are you?” Adelaide asks her double, and the answer comes in eerily straightforward fashion: “We’re Americans.”
As the family escapes one grisly battle and heads to the next, Peele establishes that the run-for-your-life dynamic serves as only one piece of the larger apocalyptic tapestry he has in store. In the meantime, it presents a range of opportunities for the talented cast to engage in extraordinary dual performances. Nyong’o in particular makes for an incredible study in contrasts, giving a frightened monologue about her past trauma at one moment — and, as her monstrous opposite, unleashing cryptic threats in a gravelly whisper.
It was obvious from “Get Out” that Peele has a knack for indelible imagery, which “Us” matches with visual sophistication to spare: Reflections, doorways, and high ceilings frame some of the most absorbing moments, which avoid the obvious jump scares (although they make a few appearances). Cinematographer Michael Gioulakis plays with light and shadow to menacing effect, while Michael Abels’ unnerving score builds to shrieking crescendos, some of which do push this jittery material over the top.
But “Us” is not big on nuance in its quest to horrify and entertain at once. When the soundtrack shifts from “Good Vibrations” to “Fuck Tha Police” at a pivotal moment — to say nothing of an orchestral riff on “I Got 5 On It” — Peele shows an unapologetic willingness to stuff every possible signifier into the plot and let his audience figure out how it adds up.
Having stretched this wily premise to nearly two hours, the full explanation for the forces at work can’t possibly satisfy as much as the suspense leading up to their arrival. That’s forgivable in a movie working overtime to provoke and disturb without toppling over from too much ambition. When the final twist arrives, savvy viewers will have figured it out a long time ago, but it’s gratifying to discover that anticipating the outcome doesn’t make it any less effective. When its sweeping climactic image arrives, “Us” makes it clear that sometimes the scariest truths are hiding in plain sight.
“Us” premiered as the opening night film at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Universal releases it March 22.