Us review: Jordan Peele’s new horror is bound to become an instant cult

The film's confusion adds to the mounting sense of unease that Peele induces in his audience

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 20 March 2019 17:01
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Us trailer Christmas Day

Dir: Jordan Peele; Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Anna Diop, Elisabeth Moss. Cert 15, 116 mins

Doppelgangers abound in Jordan Peele’s weird, creepy and ingenious new horror film. As in his Oscar-winning 2017 feature Get Out, Peele leavens matters with ironic humour but the joking becomes increasingly uncomfortable once the main characters come face to face with dark shadows of themselves which wish them extreme harm.

Us looks bound to become an instant cult movie. It is murky and mysterious enough to encourage repeat viewings. Peele combines B-movie tropes with elements of paranoid conspiracy thrillers in an unsettling and very original fashion.

Plot-wise, the film is a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s hard to untangle what precisely is going on. “Some kind of f**ked up performance art,” someone suggests when witnessing yet another example of bizarre behaviour. The comment could apply to the movie as a whole but the confusion adds to the mounting sense of unease that Peele induces in his audience.

The film opens with a caption informing us that there are thousands of miles of empty tunnels running across the US. The credits play out over beautifully shot but disturbing images of white rabbits in cages in some lab.

In a prelude set in a Santa Cruz fairground in 1986, a little girl in a Michael Jackson “Thriller” T-shirt (an article of clothing with even more ghoulish resonance after the recent Leaving Neverland documentary) is separated from her parents for 15 minutes. She wanders into a hall of mirrors where suddenly she sees what appears to be herself. It’s not a reflection. We see her looking at the back of an identical girl’s head. Once the ordeal is over, nothing for her is ever quite the same. The clues are presumably all lurking there, concealed in the 1986 prelude, but viewers will have to be very sharp-eyed to spot them.

Having made us shiver and squirm early on, the film briefly turns into a National Lampoon-style yarn about a middle-class black American family on vacation. Gabe (Winston Duke) and Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) are in the front of the car with their kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) in the back. They’re all joking and goofing around. Gabe has just bought a new boat but doesn’t know how to operate it. He wants to go down to the beach. Adelaide fails to talk him out of it. Once there, they meet their wealthy white friends, the Tylers. The brash, wisecracking Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) is busy pouring drinks for his vain and already half-sozzled wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) while their brattish teenage daughters are playing in the sand.

It’s at this point that both families start noticing “crazy” coincidences. They keep on catching glimpses of the same hippyish, Charles Manson-like man with blood dripping from his fingers. Then, the demonic doubles start appearing.

Us is open to multiple interpretations. Trump-era America is a very divided society. Peele is bringing to the surface the resentments and bitterness felt across class and racial lines, between rich and poor, weak and powerful. The title itself is a pun. “We’re Americans,” one of the doubles growls at the Wilsons. Gabe, Adelaide and their children are capable of extremely bloodthirsty acts when their lives are threatened. At times, it seems as if the horror lurks within their own psyches and that they’re simply seeing themselves as they really are, with their masks ripped off. The genial, easygoing family members behave in just as feral and vicious a way as their tormentors, who themselves could be the real victims.

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All the cast members relish their chance to tackle twin roles – and to act opposite distorted versions of themselves. Nyong’o isn’t just playing the smart and self-reliant Adelaide but a grunting and tormented woman who behaves like her twisted sister. Winston Duke elicits plenty of laughs as the hunky but hapless Gabe, telling the forces of evil to get off his driveway before he lets them have it with a baseball bat. His dark half is given some comic moments too. They’re both equally inept when it comes to operating engines and flare guns.

At the most fraught moments, Peele will always include a gag or two. If a desperate character implores an Alexa-like device to call the police, the device is bound to misinterpret the instruction and play a song by The Police instead. The Beach Boys also feature on the soundtrack just when the film is turning very nasty and the bad vibrations are really beginning to be felt.

At times, the film seems to be a reworking of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, done in duplicate. The 1986 fairground scenes evoke memories of Stephen King adaptations (you wouldn’t be surprised if Pennywise the clown from It put in an appearance). There are also echoes here of everything from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Peele, though, has a distinctive storytelling style of his own, one that combines Simpsons-style humour with blood-curdling horror.

Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide is the only protagonist here with a proper back story. Nyong’o plays her in a very complex fashion. She is at once the protective mom, the aggressor and the traumatised victim. Peele is so busy setting up the shocks, thrills and gags that he has little time to develop the other characters in any depth. As a result, Us doesn’t have the same emotional kick as the director’s debut feature, Get Out, which worked equally well both as a study in terror and as a drama about an interracial romance turning sour.

The new film is still quite a ride, though. Watching Us, you feel that same mix of morbid fascination and extreme dread experienced by the girl in the Santa Cruz fairground, dropping her toffee apple in the sand and venturing precisely where she knows she shouldn’t.

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