Jordan Peele’s “Us” is a film whose reputation precedes it. Almost every conversation about the film over the past month has included talk about its inevitable place among the greatest horror movies of all time, the same with Peele among the greatest writers and directors. Peele already made history in 2017 when his horror film “Get Out” made him the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Could this film make him the first African-American to win for Best Director? If you believe the buzz, it might. If you believe me… it’s probably somebody else’s year.
This is a film that loves its twists, but I’ll try not to get too far into spoiler territory. The film opens in 1986 where young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is looking forward to Hands Across America. Her parents take her to an amusement park, where she wanders into a house of mirrors and suffers a traumatic experience when one of her reflections doesn’t move along with her. Peele fills the carnival with so much foreboding atmosphere that Adelaide should count herself lucky that she made it as far as the house of mirrors. Credit to composer Michael Abels for giving this film a bone-chilling score that will make you check under your bed at night for mere noises.
We then cut to present day. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) are vacationing with their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright) and Jason (Evan Alex). Adelaide is dismayed that Gabe is dragging the family to the same beach where her childhood was forever altered. She’s also not thrilled with the company of the shallow Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elizabeth Moss), but that’s more about annoyance than ominousness. She loses track of Jason, who is seduced by the sight of a man holding hands with nobody (reminiscent of a George Carlin line, “Here’s something you can’t do by yourself: practice shaking hands.”) and the day ends badly. But the night is even worse.
The family finds themselves accosted in their vacation home by a group of four strangers: a man, a woman, a teenage girl, and a boy, the same lineup as them. Upon further examination, it is them. Or to their point of view, “Us.” The family of doppelgangers looks like our heroes (they’re all the same actors), think like our heroes, even occasionally involuntarily move like our heroes, but they also want to kill our heroes, preferably with some handy-dandy perfectly-symmetrical scissors that are just part of this film’s ever-dichotomic imagery. The group, known as The Tethered (invoking the bondage of slavery) would do well to just kill everybody and move on to their larger plan, but Peele isn’t above the horror movie trope of having his villains relish in toying with their victims so much that they give up the element of surprise, which just sets the heroes up for a daring escape.
There’s a lot that can be done with a horror movie that sees people face-to-face with murderous versions of themselves and their loved ones. There’s a lot that can be said too, about how we as Americans have a tendency to spoil ourselves and not think about others, or in this case, The Other. But then the film itself gets surprisingly greedy with its concept, escalating the scope of the attack to a point where it’s no longer believable, relatable, or impactful. The movie seems overstuffed, both in apparent action and underlying social commentary. Perhaps it should have been split into two movies, one about the family being stalked and another about the grander scheme (the title “Us Too” is right there). Still, I’d much rather see a movie that’s overly ambitious than a movie whose ambitiousness is lacking, and Peele fills practically every frame of this movie with pure ambition. Peele has put a lot of thought into “Us,” and in return we’re expected to do a lot of thinking ourselves, maybe about too much at once.
“Us” is rated R for violence/terror, and language. Its running time is 116 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.