Us: Jordan Peele's crazy horror fever-dream is ambitious, ambiguous, smart and maybe even commercial

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

Jordan Peele is either a new breed of filmmaking talent or a throwback. If the latter, it’s to that Golden Age of studio movies that could simultaneously be smart, challenging AND commercially popular.

With two horror genre movies under his belt, Peele – previously known mainly for his comedy with partner Keegan-Michael Key – has refused to pander. Get Out was a horror movie entirely focused as a race-based fantasy/nightmare straight out of the subconscious.

Lupita Nyong’o playing her bad self in Jordan Peele’s Us.

Lupita Nyong’o playing her bad self in Jordan Peele’s Us.

Us – his doppelganger-horror movie in which an upper-middle-class African-American family on vacation encounters malicious doubles of themselves - is ambitious, ambiguous and chilling in ways most of us probably never even imagined. It operates on the notion that the unknown is scarier than the known, so explanations are few (and not exactly airtight when we get them). 

As for the big-idea premise, psychologists could have a field day with the notion of mysterious versions of ourselves, intent on killing and replacing us.

Devoid of all but the most subtle social comment (asked the inevitable, “Who are you?” a doppelganger answers with a sinister, “We’re Americans” – a cryptic response that gets one of the movie’s well-placed tension-breaking laughs).

After some expositional onscreen text about the thousands of miles of unused or abandoned tunnels in the continental United States, Us opens with a hard chill in 1986, the era of Hands Across America (an important motif in the film) and green-hued CRT colour TVs. At a carnival boardwalk in Santa Cruz, a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders from her parents and enters a house of mirrors where one of the reflections acts independently and grins at her. 

That’s all we see, and all we know, until years later when the grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) is on a seaside holiday at a summer house with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), young son Jason (Evan Alex) and teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). Inexplicably (at least on the surface), considering Adelaide’s past trauma, the vacation includes a visit to the same Santa Cruz boardwalk.

It also includes Adelaide’s reluctant participation in beach socializing with Gabe’s hard-partying friend Josh (Tim Heidecker), his loud, equally alcohol-driven wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their Barbie-ish twin teen daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon).

All of which is prelude to a night when the power goes off, and a family of four appears in the darkness, holding hands in the Wilson family’s driveway. Much violence and revelation is to come, and should be experienced, so I’ll say no more, except to add that events become more macro as the plot unfolds.

This is Nyong’o’s movie – a film in which she is front and center in a majority of scenes, either playing her “normal” self or her evil twin (others do get that opportunity as well, and Moss in particular seems to revel playing dementedly evil in her brief flourish). For reasons initially unexplained, Adelaide’s double is the only one who speaks.

Peele plays it all like an auteur, starting with the soundtrack - with its unnerving contributions from modern composer Michael Abels (who also worked on Get Out) to Oakland duo Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It,” to campy contributions like The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and NWA’s F--- Tha Police (both of which serve as backdrop for scenes of extreme violence). 

And his choice of shots is remarkable, from the mirror house to an institutional hallway chase that goes on forever, to static shots of possible entry points that double down on the suspense. Us is a well shot, artfully chilling movie, one awash in mood but which doesn’t fail to deliver the story.

Us. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke and Elisabeth Moss. Opens wide, Friday, March 22.