By Andrea Thompson
In Jordan Peele’s new feature “Us,” he taps into many of our fears right away, telling us that right under America, there are a large number of tunnels, some of which have no apparent purpose. Toss in a large number of very adorable, very much caged rabbits over some truly unsettling music, fresh from the memory of previously mentioned horrors lurking right under our feet and animals we have come to regard as cuddly and harmless, and we’re left with the chills.
It’s not just Peele’s expertly attuned direction that unsettles, it’s the knowledge that sooner or later we’re going to learn how these seemingly unconnected things fit together, and it won’t be pleasant. Anyone with any Biblical knowledge will also have their blood run appropriately cold by a reference to Jeremiah 11:11, which states, “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.”
In other words? Shit is about to go down. Our end begins in 1986, where a young girl is celebrating her birthday at a carnival in Santa Cruz with her parents. Wandering off to a hall of mirrors, she beholds one of the most terrifying sights imaginable: a reflection of herself that is far more than a reflection. Another time jump to now, and that girl, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), is now happily married to Gabe (Winston Duke), with two children, the teenage Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and preteen Jason (Evan Alex).
Even though the family has a summer house in Santa Cruz, what Adelaide experienced that night has affected her enough to never go near that beach again. When she is finally persuaded to, her time there convinces her that something truly terrible awaits her family. Sure enough, before they even have time to pack, her young son Jason quietly informs them there’s a family standing in their driveway. In a rush of common sense, Adelaide immediately calls 911, but since we’ve all seen the trailers, we know intelligent decisions won’t be enough to stop the bloodshed to come.
And boy is there bloodshed, all made darkly hilarious by Peele’s fantastic use of not only his actors, but the music they battle to. The Wilsons’ neighbors and friends, the Tylers, a far more well-off white family, discover the existence of their own doubles to “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, and Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are truly hilarious as first a dysfunctional couple, and later their dark reflections. Just watching the Moss doppelganger applying lip gloss is a kind of master class in horror acting, and Heidecker brings the comedy as both versions of himself.
Each member of the Wilson family also does masterful work, with Nyong’o’s “Black Panther” co-star continuing to make us laugh, this time as the embarassing dad. Their battle with the Tyler doubles would be deeply satisfying anyway, but the fact that it takes place while “Fuck Tha Police” plays is just the icing on the top. But even the most talented actor can only do so much to bring all this potential to awe-inspiring life when the script almost refuses to allow it. Except for Adelaide, no double really has much of a personality. So it pretty much nixes all possibilities of any further comedic horror inherent in a scenario where they take over the lives of their originals. Nor is there much development with their supposed mental bond.
Even the larger explanation falls flat. It’s a nice touch that the final battle occurs not in the hall of mirrors where Adelaide first encountered her double, but beneath it amidst the real source of the horror. But while in “Get Out” the history of race in America supplied the larger narrative, Peele doesn’t give “Us” a big picture so much as a quick explanation that only partially causes the pieces to fall into place in a story that’s already overstuffed with symbolism (and plot holes), with a twist that’s easy to predict. This is supposed to partly be about the underprivileged rising up to wreak revenge on the privileged, but a lot of the resonance is going to be lost if the underprivileged are animalistic brutes. Peele’s miss is a lot more enjoyable than most hits, but “Us” still ends up being a concept in service of blood, not the other way around.