'Us': Film Review | SXSW 2019

A fiercely scary movie whose meaning is up for grabs.
3/22/2019

Jordan Peele follows 'Get Out' with a horror film starring Lupita Nyong'o in which the monsters look just like the heroes.

"We're Americans."

That single line will be the portal through which Jordan Peele's fans might seek sociopolitical meaning in Us, an often terrifying thriller whose fantastical premise isn't nearly as easy to read allegorically as that of his shockingly good debut, Get Out. Clearly the work of an ambitious writer-director who can see himself inheriting the mantle of Rod Serling (the Peele-hosted Twilight Zone reboot launches in less than a month), it offers twists and ironies and false endings galore — along with more laughs than the comedian-turned-auteur dared to include in his debut film. Though probably more commercially limited by its genre than its hard-to-pigeonhole predecessor, it packs a punch.

Opening with a shot of a television surrounded by VHS tapes that tease at some of the film's possible inspirations (C.H.U.D., The Goonies, The Right Stuff; which of these does not belong?), Us introduces Adelaide (Madison Curry), a young girl in 1986 Santa Cruz who's about to have a traumatic experience at a beachside amusement park.

Cut to the present day, when Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) is a mother of two, heading out with husband Gabe (Winston Duke) for a vacation at her childhood home. Though she recoils at Gabe's suggestion that they take young Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright-Joseph) to the beach — the idea triggers memories she hasn't told Gabe about — she relents; once there, mysterious forces seem to be pushing her toward whatever once harmed her.

A general air of icky dread builds toward the scenes that, having been spilled all over the film's trailers, can't be spoiled here: Back home that night, four mysterious assailants trap the Wilsons in their house. Each one is the near-identical twin of a family member, though only Adelaide's twin speaks. In a gasping croak, she identifies herself as Adelaide's "shadow," who has lived a life of misery "tethered" to her but far away. She and the others have come to do some un-tethering, and it's going to hurt.

To this point, Duke (previously the fearsome clan leader M'Baku in Black Panther) has been a surprisingly winning source of comic relief, stealing scenes as most dads only wish they could. Now, those laughs are rationed out stingily, used to cut the tension between two very intense, very fine performances by Nyong'o. While her Adelaide is nearly paralyzed by a combination of maternal panic and childhood memories, her Shadow is an old-school bringer of violent justice, settling scores the Wilsons didn't even know existed.

As home invasion standoffs go, Us would be a thrill ride even if its villains weren't horrifying grotesques of the characters they seek to destroy. It ends with satisfying violence, but of course this is not the end: The doppelganger vision expands, taking in the neighbors (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, 2018's version of Me Generation vapidity) and making escape much harder than the Wilsons imagined. And then things get weirder still.

I'll save you the trouble of googling the Bible verse cited by a madman here: Jeremiah 11:11 reads, "Therefore this is what the Lord says: 'I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.'" But nobody cries out to God in the apocalypse Us winds up conjuring. They fight and fight, while viewers cower and pray that the answer to Peele's mystery will be worthy of the bloody road leading to it. We'll leave that question for viewers to hash out over a post-viewing drink. What isn't up for debate is the obvious pleasure Peele takes in crafting a film whose many references to pop-culture history — you'll be too tense to giggle when a boy in a Chewbacca mask yells, "It's a trap!" — are sometimes transmogrified into an iconography all their own. Monstrous beings wearing red jumpsuits and a single fingerless glove, carrying giant gold scissors while howling wordlessly to their partners lurking in the shadows — that's an image that will provoke nightmares, even before we can explore where its components come from.

Perhaps Us is making the obvious point that, whether we're black or white, it's people who look just like us who've made our world a disaster we cannot escape. Maybe we're doing the same, both of us creating a living hell for someone, likely without even knowing it. Maybe we're Them and they're Us. Maybe every happy ending is somebody else's catastrophe, and therefore, no horror film is ever really over.

Production company: Monkeypaw Productions
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright-Joseph, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop, Madison Curry, Cali Sheldon
Director-screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Producers: Jordan Peele, Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Ian Cooper
Executive producers: Daniel Lupi, Bea Sequeira
Director of photography: Mike Gioulakis
Production designer: Ruth De Jong
Costume designer: Kym Barrett
Editor: Nicholas Monsour
Composer: Michael Abels
Casting director: Terri Taylor
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Headliners)

Rated R, 116 minutes