Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Madison Curry, Evan Alex, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss
Writer-Director: Jordan Peele
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
That’s the sound of this movie going right over my head. If Jordan Peele is sending out a message in his new movie Us, I whiffed on it worse than Michael Jordan missing the curveball when he tried to switch sports. And I’m a fairly intelligent guy who generally figures stuff out.
Judging by the reactions of my fellow movie-goers and the silence in the theater at movie’s end, I think we were all a bit puzzled about the “meaning” of what we just saw.
Us is the highly anticipated new Jordan Peele flick, following the monumental success of his debut movie Get Out two years ago, which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Get Out was a near masterpiece of horror-social commentary about being Black in America. With the announcement of his new project, Us, another horror film, expectations naturally have been that Peele would have something biting to say to go along with the scares.
He does, it seems; the message just doesn’t register with enough clarity. There are mentions of thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the United States and lots of white rabbits visuals and Hands Across America references. Since trailers of the movie began to be released a few months ago, social media has been ablaze with theories about “what does it all mean?”
You can sit there and chew on that throughout the whole movie, but it’s not a bad thing to just stick with the plot, which is about duality and doppelganger horror – the notion that we all have a twin or another side of us lurking somewhere. That makes for a spooky good premise in Us!
The story centers around Adelaide Wilson, who as a young child had a traumatic experience along a beach boardwalk carnival in her family’s hometown of Santa Cruz, California.
As a grownup (Lupita Nyong’o), she returns to the family home with her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph). Reluctantly and at her husband’s request, she and the family visit the boardwalk where strange things begin to happen, seemingly linked to that traumatic experience from her youth.
In short order, Adelaide and her family, and the rest of the community, find themselves fighting for their lives against a horrific enemy they never expected – real, live and very menacing variations of themselves.
Messages aside, the kick of the movie becomes the thrill of seeing who survives and how. For a guy originally known for being primarily a comedian, as a director, Peele is surprisingly good at suspense, pacing, and producing goosebumps. And in Us, he gives you your money’s worth if you’re coming to see an effective little scary mystery/thriller.
Peele deserves strong acknowledgement and credit for his boldness in casting – every Black person in this movie is darker-complected.
That’s something rarely seen in mainstream American movies, where there seems to be an unofficial, unspoken color barrier for actors of a darker hue, and where brown or lighter tones seem to be the preferred hires. Black Panther is an exception, but that movie was set in Africa.
Not knowing his mind or having read any comment from him about it, I believe that Peele intentionally cast darker-skin actors in the film’s lead roles. If that was a deliberate choice, bravo to him for that. Given the opportunity in Us, these artists get to display – at length – some pretty terrific acting chops.
Until watching her as the lead character here, for instance, I had no idea that Lupita Nyong’o could act. I mean act-act. I’ve seen her in 12 Years A Slave (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) playing a horribly abused slave, and as a heroine in Black Panther, which is a great movie, but is still basically just a comic book. Neither role allowed Lupita to show much range.
In Us, however, playing the role of a real, ordinary person, Nyong’o acts her you-know-what off; in a mesmerizing performance, she carries the weight of the movie. Winston Duke does nice subtle work as the affable husband with the dad jokes and the kids Shahadi and Evan as well – they’re all great, especially as they all play dual roles of two sides of the same person.
Also interestingly cast are Tim Heidecker from Adult Swim’s Tim and Eric Show and Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. They play the parents in a family that is close friends of the Wilsons and truly provide chills portraying their own murderous evil twins.
There are plenty of good reasons to see Us, though it doesn’t reach Get Out’s level of genius. It’s different. Peele is a very imaginative writer adept at presenting Twilight Zone-ish social statement-horror. Coincidentally, he’s the executive producer and host of a new reboot of Twilight Zone that begins streaming April 1 on the CBS All Access Channel.
Twilight Zone’s creator Rod Serling probably would have been happy to select Peele’s allegorical (if it is?) tale of Us as one of the episodes for his iconic sci-fi/fantasy series. In fact, Peele acknowledges that it was an episode from the first season of Twilight Zone in 1960 called “Mirror Image” that partly inspired his vision for Us in the first place. I remember that episode; it was pretty damn unnerving. Check it out here.
The scares in Us I enjoyed; the social statement I mostly didn’t get. For my density, I’ll take part of the blame, but some of it I’m putting on Peele for maybe kind of missing the mark a bit. Love Jordan Peele; huge fan of his work, especially as part of the comedy team of Key & Peele. But this time, Bodie didn’t quite put it on the chainwax, and if you need to know what that reference means, please click here!