OnScreen Review: 'Us'

  • Ken Jones. Chief Film Critic

Early on in Us, a homeless man is seen holding up a cardboard sign that says Jeremiah 11:11. When I got out of the theater from seeing Us, I quickly looked up this Bible verse, curious as to what it said. “Therefore, thus says the Lord, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them.” This ominous verse from the prophet Jeremiah, spoken to the people of Israel, is a warning of judgment for breaking their covenant with God. It’s an interesting find by Jordan Peele, the director of Us, the follow-up to his debut directorial effort, Get Out.

Indeed, the story of Us deals with a disaster and judgment being visited upon “the people.” In this case, Americans, though I will decline to elaborate upon that because to do so would spoil too much of the movie. Peele litters his film with the recurring numerology of the number 11 and 11:11, as well as visual symbols for what is really going on in this movie, like in a scene at the beach where a frisbee lands on a beach towel perfectly covering a polka dot on the towel. 11 is the first number consisting of a duplicate of a number, and 11:11 is the only time on a 12-hour clock that can display the same number four times. And at the heart of Us, what do we have but a family of four.

The Wilson family, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), and their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The basic premise of the film is that while the Wilson family is in Santa Cruz on vacation, they experience a home invasion, perpetrated by what turns out to be their doppelgangers. The term “doppelgangers” doesn’t have the same connotations today that it originally had; today it is used mainly as shorthand to say, “I saw someone that looked just like you,” but originally, it was an evil and foreboding term, like an unnatural double of someone. Jordan Peele is clearly trying to reclaim the original meaning of the word with this movie.

Their doppelganger counterparts arrive dressed in red janitor jumpsuits and armed with big, golden shears that are not intended to cut hair or paper. Only Adelaide’s counterpart, Red, speaks, and does so in a chilling, rasping voice that sounds like Nyong’o is somehow speaking as she breathes in air. The other doppelgangers are more primitive. Gabe’s opposite only grunts loudly, Zora’s simply flashes an evil grin, and Jason’s wears a freaky mask and behaves like a dog (and turns out to be named Pluto). They are the funhouse mirror image of the Wilsons, the flipside of some twisted coin.

Saying anything more about the plot and concept of the film would give away too much. Us is a movie to be enjoyed without knowing much more than that going into it. Peele has drawn on things that frightened him as a child and/or a nightmare he had to concoct his second film here, which is distinctly more purely horror than Get Out was received as. The film is definitely unnerving and unsettling, something in the vein of It Follows or The Strangers. It’s not without its moments of violence and gore, but Peele deploys them judiciously. In fact, I appreciated the restraint Peele exhibits as a writer and director in letting the film settle into everyday domestic life for this family with a few moments of foreboding before finally unleashing this night of terror upon them and others.

Lupita Nyong’o is the star of the film and gives a tremendous dual performance as Adelaide and Red, going from protective mother ready to fight for her family to menace and malice. Since winning an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, she has not had much in terms of juicy, high profile roles outside of the supporting role in Black Panther and a leading role in the little-seen Queen of Katwe. Here is hoping that this further propels her star in Hollywood because she is a talented and deserving actress that should be in more things that aren’t CGI (Maz in Star Wars and Raksha in The Jungle Book). I also enjoyed Winston Duke’s role as the dad of this family, who comes off as horror movie equivalent to Chevy Chases’ Clark Griswold, someone too sure of himself and far less in command of situations than he thinks he is. In addition to the talented young kids, the film also has great supporting performances from Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, a couple with twins who are vacation friends of the Wilsons.

While it is an original concept film at the box office (not a sequel, not a remake), it wears its influences on its sleeve: Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, C.H.U.D., The Birds and even The Goonies (which has a line lifted almost entirely word for word). Peele is taking the things that influenced him and scared him as a child and creating something today that is more organic and natural than something like Super 8 which was supposed to be an homage to early 80s Spielberg.

Get Out was something of a gamechanger when it came out. Peele took cultural appropriation to new heights and used it to make a compelling and captivating horror thriller that caught the attention of audiences, critics, and industry award season. It made Peele a name to take note of. Us is an impressive follow-up to Get Out. It is a disturbing vision of a kind of judgment day. Also, given that Peele is reviving The Twilight Zone as a TV series, it fits right in with that vein of horror/thriller/suspense. Here’s hoping Jordan Peele continues to share his nightmares with us.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars