The obvious question remains: can filmmaker Jordan Peele serve up a worthy sophomore offering to his 2017 breakout psychological horror hit ‘Get Out’ that totally revitalised the goose-bump genre into another captivating level of imagination and introspection? Sure, ‘Get Out’ was special in its conceived presentation of the clever manipulation of racism and cultural curiosity. Peele dared to tiptoe into a comprehensive creeper that resourcefully examined touchy societal perceptions with whispery wonderment and wit.
So now writer-director Peele’s second feature ‘Us’ arrives and demonstrates its own kind of shadowy vibe while illustrating just how ambitious and disciplined its talented auteur is in rendering skillful message-driven frightfests.
In comparing the well-received ‘Get Out’ to ‘Us’ is inevitable as the high expectations loom large in Peele’s caustic, creative windmill of tension and turmoil. The emphasised theme in his current delirious doppelganger drama revolves around the mysteries of self-identity. At times ‘Us’ feels uneven in its delivery of ribaldry and reflection but, overall, the compelling components are solidly highlighted by the riveting performances and Peele’s accented nightmarish nuances. The structured anxieties and tampering of normality, particularly poised within the psyches of the morbid black mindset, gives ‘Us’ its distinctive realm of descriptive cynicism and shock.
Indeed, ‘Us’ is an elaborate guessing game or terrorising tease…something of a frustrating fear-inducing fable that Peele does not quite make accessible for the audience’s curious comprehension. Nevertheless, ‘Us’ remains spellbinding in its gripping hold as the introduction of struggles, sacrifices and questionable sanity reach the crossroads of visceral disillusionment. Consequently, the shaky answers and elusive logic to the trauma in Peele’s luminous look-a-like sideshow is a tricky take to endure. Thankfully, this only adds to the surfacing, layered mayhem of Peele’s haunting vehicle eliciting an entertaining uneasiness.
The film starts off circa 1986 where a young girl named Adelaide Wilson is enjoying her Santa Cruz, CA-based fun-time with her parents at the local carnival. Adelaide wanders off in favour of visiting a house of mirrors attraction at the boardwalk. The eerie occurrence that develops is headscratching when Adelaide is lost inside as she encounters an actual little girl that resembles her. The exact double naturally petrifies Adelaide as she is totally freaked out. This is not the mirrors that have conjured up her likeness…it is Adelaide’s twin in the flesh. Go figure.
Now, many years later, the adult Adelaide (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o from ‘Black Panther’) is a proud wife and mother. Her family consists of husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and her teen offspring Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). Together, the Winstons are going to enjoy a much-needed getaway as they look forward to vacationing at a cosy summer cottage along the lake in Santa Cruz. At first, Adelaide has her doubts about returning to the same beachfront region where she experienced her youthful bizarre self in the form of another little girl’s same resemblance. Still, the vacation should be therapeutic for her family as they plan to meet up with friends Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their daughters (Cali Sheldon and Noelle Sheldon).
However, things start to get mighty strange as the evening progresses. First, pre-teen Jason roams off, therefore upsetting a paranoid Adelaide. Inevitably, more graphic concerns are brought to the forefront when the night-time cabin becomes invaded by a stone-faced family wearing bright red jumpsuits. Notably, the peculiar family standing motionless in the dark are replicas of the Wilsons. The unwelcomed cloned home invaders are an unbelievable sight for the panicky eyes. This raises the forethought: is the symbolism of the ultimate enemy within ourselves? Are we repressed with the duality of the same face that harbors the righteousness and recklessness? Do we cope with the inner conflict of lightness and darkness regardless of the familiar face we wear with underlying despair? Is this another way that marginalised individuals of society deal with simultaneous pressures of inherent strife?
Strategically, Shahadi Wright Joseph begs the viewer to ask the variety of questions without committing to a ready-made solution. A decent horror film leans on its contemplative foundation and enlists the suggestive moodiness of its macabre makeup to fill in the gradual shockwaves. Peele’s exploratory material is delightfully and devilishly speculative. Perhaps the underground meaning is nothing more vital than a cloning creepfest that registers weirdly in its arbitrary skin? But we know better than to assume that Peele has not embedded any piercing commentary into his nerve-racking narrative. ‘Us’ may slightly pale in comparison to ‘Get Out’s sheer balanced brilliance of seedy-minded satire concerning condescending racial tolerance. Invariably, Peele’s sardonic wink in having his protagonists literally look into a humanoid mirror of their zombified, reflective, and tortured spitting image is uncannily insightful and gently insidious.
The breathtaking Nyong’o is dutifully effective as her on-screen alter egos Adelaide/Red. She manages to incorporate the separate drawn personas that reveal a focused contrast in her spine-tingling double roles. As Adelaide, Nyong’o is edgy and vulnerable, while her bad twin Red exudes an unctuous potency as the dastardly diva unleashed. The exhaustive physicality, mental gymnastics and crafty facial gestures that overcome Nyong’o’s terror twins simply remind us what a resourceful and reactionary actress she is in character. Nyong’o’s ‘Black Panther’ co-star Duke is equally interesting as the physically imposing hubby equally at mercy of the shifty shenanigans transpiring. Moss’ Kitty Tyler’s unaware lush is the unintentional comical relief among the clone-zone craziness.
Peele’s unique knack for delving into the thought-provoking muck certainly puts ‘Us’ in the good company of well-made scare spectacles that purposely bites off more than it can chew but with a prolonged twist that stubbornly hovers over the percolating proceedings. Fittingly, Peele’s pet project brings a whole new definition to courting face-to-face double trouble.
2 hrs. 1 min.
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Cali Sheldon and Noelle Sheldon
Directed and written by Jordan Peele
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: Horror/Mystery & Suspense
Critic’s rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
(c) Frank Ochieng (2019)