Two immediate things about Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated “Get Out” follow-up, “Us”: 1) If you love thoughtful horror films and don’t know much about this one, stop reading and get to the theater right now; this is one of those movies that you should allow to surprise you. 2) Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is … wow.
Oooookay. (Breathes; tries to remember movie without freaking self out; promises self a cleansing rom-com viewing later.) “Us” is, essentially, about otherness, exploring both the literal idea that each of us has a doppelgänger hiding in the shadows, gazing with envy and resentment at our lives, and the more general idea of others — people who are not like us, who we can blame for the problems of society. It’s about the terror that ensues when a regular American family finds itself face-to-face with those others — who are angry and violent, and, as a child in the movie says, “They’re us.” And yes, it’s scary as hell.
The story unfolds in the context of a perfectly ordinary weekend, in which the Wilsons — parents Adelaide (Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke), kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) — head to their lake house for some relaxation and sunshine. A prologue, set in 1986, shows us a mysterious event in Adelaide’s past: As a child, she was separated from her parents at a carnival and became lost in a dark funhouse hall of mirrors, finding there a little girl who looked just like her. Grown-up Adelaide is still haunted by this event — “I feel like she’s still coming for me,” she tells Gabe — and when four red-jumpsuit-clad figures turn up on the driveway late at night, she somehow knows it’s a reckoning.
In only his second movie as a director, Peele is already a master of tone, and “Us” is full of memorable, vivid touches: an eerily choral score; persistent themes of bright red (in those jumpsuits, in a candy apple, in slow-dripping blood) and of white rabbits; the cast’s remarkable deployment of an array of utterly terrifying Cheshire-cat smiles; a breathtaking shot, early in the film, of the Wilsons making their way across a sandy beach, each of them trailed by a spindly, malevolent-looking shadow. And while the movie doesn’t entirely do justice to its ambitious theme — it gets a little stuck in chase-and-attack mode for too long, and its final scenes are a bit opaque — it’s always surprising and completely gripping. (As was my hand on the armrest, throughout.)
Everyone in the cast, all playing double roles, is superb: the talented child actors (Joseph, as Zora’s double, has a grin that could chill lava); Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as the Wilsons’ insufferable friends; Duke, channeling the charm he showed in “Black Panther,” as a cheerfully laid-back husband/dad who knows how to make his own fun. But the movie is owned by Nyong’o, who in Adelaide creates a woman who’s both fierce mother-warrior and frightened — literally — of her own shadow. As Red, her double, Nyong’o speaks in a voice that seems to have been silenced for decades; her tones are painful, scraping, primal. You’ll strain to hear; you won’t miss, or forget, a word.
★★★½ “Us,” with Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. 116 minutes. Rated R for violence/terror and language. Opens March 21 at multiple theaters.