The highest profile release of the year so far isn’t a superhero movie, but a mind-bending, unnerving horror film directed by comedian Jordan Peele. “Us” is a bizarre, complex, violent dive into a zone where the rules that govern a thinking, rational society are totally absent as the chaos of fear reigns.
The prologue is elusive and devilishly patient, as Peele uses every carefully considered frame to set into motion the rest of the story. The premise seems simple, as the Wilsons (mother and father played by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke; children played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), an upper class family, go to a beach house for the summer, where things go smoothly until they are confronted by sinister forces. The twist to this by-the-numbers setup is that the sinister forces are the Wilsons’ doppelgängers.
All four actors also play their shadow-selves. Their clones seem to emerge from the pits of hell to torment them, and the effect is truly unnerving. The carbon-copies of the Wilsons look 99% like them, but there’s enough that’s off-kilter and animalistic about their behavior that makes it clear who the good guys are.
Most films that deal with clones and look-alikes usually end up on the same route, where the good, original copy tries to outwit themselves. It’s clear that this is not the direction Peele, who also wrote the movie, is taking, as the doppelgängers are openly violent, each like a T-1000 from “The Terminator” series with regards to their murderous intent. However, these characters are even scarier. The good guys don’t have to worry about convincing the rest of the world who the “real” them is; they just have to survive.
To reveal too much about the plot would be to ruin it. The best advice any critic can give a prospective viewer of “Us” is to tell them to stay off the internet until they’ve seen it because everybody is talking about it.
Nyong’o proves once again that she is one of the greatest actresses alive. She pulls off the good and evil sides with precision, giving each character a life that goes beyond just what we’re seeing. Nyong’o doesn’t just give her characters an identity; she gives them a history just with her facial expressions.
Winston Duke is less impressive, as his character is admittedly the least interesting of the entire film. The way he plays his shadow self brings moments of dark humor to this hair-raising film, but it’s clear to anybody who saw him in “Black Panther” that this is not an actor suited to playing regular, soft-spoken dad-types.
Besides that misstep in casting, “Us” is masterfully made. At no point when the actors go face-to-face with themselves is the effect obvious. There is no scratchy line between Lupita Nyong’o and her evil self, nor is there an obvious body-double. There are scenes in this film that are shatteringly audacious in their orchestration. Peele tells a very wicked story with total artistic control.
But audiences expecting this to follow the same narrative structure as “Get Out” are in for a rude awakening, as “Us” is a completely different beast. “Us” is daringly esoteric at points, almost to a level that pushes it into art-house territory. But Peele avoids pretentiousness by having what the characters say always make a modicum of sense, but leaving the direct answers and explanations open for interpretation. This ambiguity and hunting for answers is what made “Get Out” such a satisfying film to theorize about with friends; “Us” kicks that meter up to 11, sending his film into uncharted and head-scratching territory in the final act that isn’t replete with hokey twists but even darker questions than the ones presented before.
Every beat of the film has gravity, and none of the transitions from dialogue to all-hell-breaking-loose are jarring. Even at its most intentionally baffling, “Us” is a slick, smooth vehicle, one the viewer will instinctually allow into their brains because, despite all the horror, the overall film is insanely alluring. Shot by Mike Gioulakis (the amazing cinematographer of “It Follows”), “Us” will go down as one of the most unique-looking movies of 2019, as the balance between safe, sterile, privileged, and mundanity repeatedly clash with images of insanity.
The question is not if you will see “Us”, but when. To get a film this layered, this exciting, this exhilaratingly challenging so early in the year is beyond satisfying. “Us” asks its viewers if they want to get crazy, and the answer has to be yes.