Us is the second film this March during which my need to identify VHS spines onscreen commandeered my brain. (In Captain Marvel, a lack of alphabetical order or chronological sense at Blockbuster fried my noodle. True Lies and Babe promos up at once? No way.) Going back almost a decade further for his opening to Us, writer-director Jordan Peele scatters the tapes on purpose. They aren’t sorted by title, genre or even physical orientation. One of them is even upside-down, Craning your neck to discern that title seems like Peele winking at you — as if to say “Yeah, no through-line here from that movie, pal” and to reaffirm a 180 shift in his comic sensibilities from Mad TV into the mad-scientist horror-satire of the Academy Award-winning Get Out and his latest film.
Listing the titles would spoil specifics of the analog, aggressive mood Peale puts forth. It’s no accident that one is an Amblin classic or that a Jaws T-shirt features prominently. You feel the Amity, but never the amity, in a film of superbly mounted dread, insistent escalation and elegantly sustained tension — the forest fire to Get Out’s slow burn. Indeed, Us is Jordan Peele’s Jurassic Park, where a fear of monsters learning to open doors takes on chilling new dimensions.
Speaking of Spielberg: The hosannas out of South by Southwest had people suggesting Peele displaced both him and Hitchcock after just two films. I mean, yeah, who needs those cheap, overrated hacks? Real talk: Us is nowhere near as well-written as Peele’s Oscar-winning screenplay. There are major holes in the setup that make the outset bumpy. Its explanation of why everything goes to shit feels both clumsy and incomplete in ways Get Out avoided. Plus, his reach for biblical-scold subtext will get you Googling the verse while not really getting under your skin. (Matthew 5:5, it ain’t.)
Don’t take this to mean Us is an empty-calorie feast that you will in any way regret devouring. Set in Santa Cruz, it exploits that city’s one-time “murder capital of the world” moniker as cheekily as The Lost Boys did, and it’s similarly steeped in the sordid allure of American violence through a lens of popular culture. Thanks to a commanding, chilling dual performance from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o — one the actress perfectly cleaves into distinctly familiar and frightful forms but with a mean crossover — Us explores the pain of life’s revisions and restrictions revealed by its doppelgänger conceit.
Us has revealed that much in its trailers. Following a recent death in their family, the Wilsons arrive at their Santa Cruz summer home. Without fuss, Peale lets a handful of details reveal that they’re reasonably well off. Gabe (Winston Duke) has dad jokes for days, a defense mechanism against his concerns that he can’t protect the comforts his family enjoys. Teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) has mastered the art of the eye-roll and mulling her obligations to move the world forward. Young son Jason (Alex Wright) struggles with focus — often hiding underneath a mask but still an imaginative, kind boy.
No stranger to the summer home, Adelaide (Nyong’o) has an intuition that this particular visit will somehow spin into something sinister. When Gabe suggests a visit to Santa Cruz’s most popular beach, it triggers regret and uncertainty. Something happened to Adelaide there when she was a child that she’s been unable to shake, and odd echoes of the incident arise around her. A towel pattern resembles the Whac-a-Mole grid Adelaide’s father played that night. The same beachside funhouse beckoning you to “find yourself” inside appears with a different façade. A carny’s Black Flag T-shirt is resurrected on a lily-white teenage girl who probably thinks it’s an Urban Outfitters line instead of a seminal punk band. Was something taken from Adelaide that night or did she merely recognize that something was already missing? Which one would be harder to reconcile? Well before she physically wrestles with anyone, Nyong’o shows us the struggle of a wife and mother who feels all that is so joyously present in her life has been somehow unearned.
Just when Adelaide thought it was safe to go back near the water, a family of four appears in the summer house’s driveway — motionless, hands clasped, united in purpose, clad in red jumpsuits … armed with scissors. They are doubles of each Wilson in every way but demeanor. (As in Get Out, Peele gets agonizingly acute facial specificity from each actor, with the added bonus of chilling guttural moans and feral aggression from the doubles.)
Gabe’s duplicate, Abraham, suffers a similar patriarchal doubt but expresses it through neanderthal grunts and brute anger. Umbrae is Zora’s double, in greater command of her potential and power but for the wrong reasons. Alex’s copy, Pluto, sports a creepier mask, but we see the allure of danger in both boys’ eyes. Red is Adelaide’s double, and we come to realize — as we do with Adelaide — that she is her own family’s ringleader and fiercest protector. She issues her demands of the Wilsons in a halted, wheezy throaty rasp that seems to barely choke back the glee of a predator who has, for the first time, discovered the upper hand on its prey.
With just one line — Red’s response to Adelaide’s question of who the doubles are — Peele grants you permission to project your own ideas onto the canvas of carnage to come. You could just take Us as a large-scale supernatural spin on The Strangers and enjoy it immensely. You can also hear it shrieking about how certain rotted undersides of American life have been made flesh again, slicing their way into our spheres of logic, reason and contentment — perhaps not totally against our will. In many ways, Us suggests maybe it’s time for our known empire to expire, and Peele visualizes that idea with wonder, terror and awe of how swiftly that which took centuries to construct can be razed to the ground. The blood here doesn’t just drip. It dangles, thick and clingy, reluctant to leave the body and squeezed to its thinnest consistency before leaving the vein for good.
For all of that, Us is, quite simply, a hell of a lot of fun to watch once Peele begins to indulge his impishness. Embracing its (partial) amusement park backdrop, Us is like the rickety wooden beast on the edge of the grounds, grandfathered in before all the strict safety measures came in. Its first act closes with the year’s best delayed-payoff joke so far. (The scene is visually dark, but once you notice what has happened, you’ll erupt.) The second act unexpectedly smashes up the macabre and the mirthful with the assist of a big-laugh needle-drop. Michael Abels’ original score blends horror-staple eerie-Latin chants with the sort of infectious rhythm Adelaide tries to teach Jason to rap music in the car— spooky but hooky in its own weird way. Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss turn up, too, flexing their muscles as friends of the Wilsons who suffer oh so pathetically from the ennui of the entitled.
And yet the film’s final moments wholeheartedly reject the placating relief of a return to normalcy that’s sometimes found in such horror stories. Wounds open. Blood stains. Things can never truly be the same again, no matter how much we repeat that to ourselves. Is what happens in Us an act of god or the god-fearing? That’s anyone’s allegorical guess, perhaps even Peele’s. A recurrent visual could represent a show of solidarity for contemporary protest … or its writer-director considering, as did this fellow child of the ’80s, a literal interpretation of Hands Across America. Maybe the well-worn VHS tapes say all we need to know about Us: Great horror is great horror, and the connotations you concoct are eminently more frightening.