Before filming “Us,” writer/director Jordan Peele had his cast watch certain horror movies so they could all be on the same page. They included “The Shining,” “Funny Games,” “Let the Right One in,” “The Birds” and “The Sixth Sense.” These movies are all super atmospheric. They make impending doom visceral and pervasive, like a thick, noxious fog settling in around you, enveloping you, obscuring your vision and filling your lungs. These movies are horrifying in part because the malevolence they portray is readily perceptible and yet at the same time mysterious, irrational and utterly unknowable. It’s not supernatural—at least not always—but it sure isn’t natural either.
And that’s how “Us” starts out. A little girl in pigtails with a perfect, ruby-red candy apple in hand. A stormy night on an eerie beachside boardwalk with her inattentive, bickering parents. Glittering lights. Dark corners. Screaming rollercoaster-riders. Carnies. Freaks.
And yet Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry), innocent and naïve as she is, doesn’t perceive these poisonous vapors settling in around her. As her drunken father distracts himself with a carnival game, she wanders off—past a grizzled man holding a piece of cardboard with “Jeremiah 11:11” written on it, by some nefarious-looking teens, and down the steps toward the beach. There, Adelaide finds a funhouse-looking thing that says “Find yourself” next to a big, blinking arrow pointing into its dark depths.
If Adelaide would have had time to look up the proselytizer’s passage, she would have learned it reads, “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” Don’t go in the funhouse, Adelaide!
She drops her candy apple and scampers inside. Outside, the clouds rumble, lightning peals and, suddenly, the lights go out in the fun house. Adelaide whistles to lighten the mood. Someone whistles back. Adelaide does not, as advertised, find herself in what turns out to be a maze and hall of mirrors. Instead she finds another child much like her. Exactly like her—her spitting image—waiting for her, calm, still … but angry.
Fast forward 30 or so years and, somehow, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is a well-adjusted woman with a lovely little family—a husband, daughter and son, all portrayed neatly in one of those cute little stickers on the back of their car as they head to their vacation home by the beach.
Adelaide seems normal enough. But she doesn’t feel totally normal as she finds herself, by happenstance, at the same beachfront where the incident took place so many years ago. Despite her anxiety, and the pleading reminders from the score that terror is lurking, everything looks all right at first.
But then a family shows up. It’s late at night. And an unidentified foursome is just standing there, all in a row—kind of like that sticker on the car—right outside Adelaide’s house. As this other family sees to inviting themselves in, Adelaide’s son, Jason (Evan Alex), offers a partial identification: “It’s us.” Indeed, the intruding family appears to be a carbon copy of Adelaide’s family. Exactly alike in appearance.
Who are they? What do they want? What are they going to do? These are natural questions—questions that don’t get answered right away, naturally. Instead, the truth is revealed slowly and painfully amid all sorts of intensity, brutality, helplessness, hopelessness and horror.
Though, to be honest, I say the horror in “Us” abates a bit once the second family shows up. It’s just a different kind of movie, and the intense, mysterious atmosphere dissipates and gives way to a grizzlier, more in-your-face (though I think less terrifying) kind of film.
One way or another, “Us” remains tense throughout, gaining complexity as it goes. Peele kicks around ideas about class structure, systematic oppression and deep, psychological questions about the self which are fun to think about. This movie is also well written, acted, shot, composed, etc. In short, it’s a good movie.
But it doesn’t quite live up to its promise or cinematic inspirations (“The Shining,” “Funny Games,” “The Birds”). While the mood set in the earlier part of the film would have made Hitchcock and Kubrick proud, it does not maintain an oppressive aura throughout. We get relief, or something near enough. Which is a bad thing for a horror movie to give.
Furthermore, the thematic material about class, oppression, the self, while interesting, doesn’t really deliver the goods either. It’s as if Peele wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do, what he wanted the doppelganger families to represent, or what he wanted to say. He had some interesting ideas and just threw them out there for us to go Rorschach on, which is a little disappointing. Though certainly not disappointing enough to ruin the overall cinematic accomplishment of Peele’s sophomore run.
“Us” is rated R for violence/terror and language.