Jordan Peele's 'Us' Is a Funny, Bloody Take-Down of American Nostalgia
With the very first frames of Us, writer-director Jordan Peele gives us a master class in expectation. A young girl is staring at a TV that's showing an ad for the 1986 charity event "Hands Across America," her reflected face superimposed on the screen. The television set is framed by VHS tapes of '80s genre movies like C.H.U.D., The Goonies, and The Man With Two Brains, and the artifacts serve to make her reflective silent stare even more arresting. But Peele isn't just encouraging you to watch closely and look for symbols in pop cultural ephemera. He's inverting the warm and fuzzy '80s nostalgia that viewers today have become accustomed to. The shot is his mission statement.
The director's follow-up to his 2017 debut, Get Out, heads into theaters this weekend with almost impossible expectations to meet. Not only was Get Out a box office hit and an Oscar-winner, it was a film that actually said something about the times we live in. The good news is that Us comes close to hitting those highs. Its streak of commentary is cheekier, though, and its energy more akin to a night at a carnival filled with roller coaster rides and funhouse mirrors than a hyper-tense dinner party. Viewers who need explanations for every bit of lore might be a little disappointed. But Us is a great time, and Peele's skill in creating unforgettable images is absolutely invigorating. No one working today is better at capturing terror in a person's eyes than he is.
Us continues its opening sequence with a flashback featuring that little girl (Madison Curry) on the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her bickering parents. As her father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) plays Whac-a-Mole, she wanders onto the sand, mysteriously drawn to an attraction called "Shaman's Vision Quest," which promises that you will "find yourself." Turns out that's literal. In the hall of mirrors, she comes face to face with her own doppelgänger.
The narrative then jumps ahead to the present, where that child is now the adult Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) on vacation with her kids Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke). They are staying at Adelaide's mother's old waterside home, near that fateful boardwalk, which Adelaide is reluctant to visit. Gabe, infatuated with his new boat, seems oblivious to his wife's trepidation. Zora's buried in her phone. And Jason's, well, Jason's a little off, choosing to wear a Chewbacca mask at almost all times.
The foursome does end up on the beach, hanging with an obnoxious couple (played hilariously by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) that Gabe is desperate to impress. Jason wanders off to use the bathroom and encounters a solitary figure, arms outstretched, hands dripping with blood. Adelaide is apoplectic that her son has briefly gone missing. But it's later that night when the horrors begin.
You've seen the trailer, so you know: A family, hands linked, stands menacingly in the Wilsons' driveway. Soon, they break into the house, and when their faces are lit by firelight, we see that they are mirror images of the Wilsons, all dressed in red jumpsuits, each contorted in some way.
From there, the movie unfolds with a series of set pieces that find the Wilsons battling and running from their incredibly familiar foes. It's a relentless chase that only gets more gruesome as it goes, but Peele blessedly refuses to abandon the medium that made him a star with Key and Peele. Nearly every scene is infused with moments that break up the terror with humor. These interruptions rip through the bloodbath in the form of music cues ("Good Vibrations" and "Fuck tha Police" make surprising bedfellows), and the warm interactions between the Wilsons, specifically Gabe, Zora, and Jason. Duke, who stole scenes in Black Panther, continues to do so here, fully embracing Gabe's dorky dad vibes.
By virtue of the plot, Nyong'o exists somewhat in isolation from that camaraderie, but what she does in her dual roles is nothing short of remarkable, and the extent to which she's layered these portrayals isn't full clear until the film's final moments. Her doppelgänger's strained, cracking voice will be oft-imitated but never recreated. It's perfectly calibrated so that every time you might find it ridiculous, the voice effectively starts to haunt. As Adelaide, Nyong'o exudes a tormented ferociousness while deftly wielding a fire iron. Still, she never fully shows her hand, leaving us to wonder just how deep her trauma goes.
Peele fully unveils his convoluted mythology in the third act, and while it's easy to poke holes at some of the logistics of what he describes, his points couldn't be clearer. In both references and format, much of Us feels like an excavation, and maybe even an exorcism, of Peele's childhood influences, all in an effort to make a grand metaphor about the callousness of America and its class system. Our current pop-cultural landscape, from Stranger Things to Bumblebee, has gone a long way to present the '80s as a more innocent time. Us highlights the insidiousness of the Reagan era, even while acknowledging that, yeah, the movies were pretty great.
Like any abandoned rec room filled with kitsch from the past, Us is a little messy in spots, but you'll certainly have a blast spending time in its crazy, fucked up, delirious world, even as you stop to consider how pervasive evil really is.