“Therefore thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon them… which they shall not be able to escape.”
On a California beach boardwalk in 1986, a little girl wanders off from her fussing parents alone into a hall of mirrors; when she is later found, the girl has stopped speaking, presumably over whatever transpired. In present day, grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) is taken back to Santa Cruz by her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) for a summer vacation with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Between imagery on the beach and a similar scare with her son, Adelaide is consumed with anxiety, fearing what she doesn’t know and confessing to her husband for the first time in her life what she saw as a child. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, four strangers invade their home soon after, and little Jason voices what everyone is thinking as they confront their doppelgängers: “It’s us.”
After successfully leaping from the Comedy Central series “Key and Peele” to writing/directing the surprisingly resonant Get Out — not to mention a Super Bowl LIII announcement of bringing back “The Twilight Zone” for CBS All Access — there was an expectation from Jordan Peele in the same way a newly minted M. Night Shyamalan was destined to succeed. With heavy buzz going into the recent SXSW Film Festival, Peele’s sophomore follow-up appears to have the goods, but does it play safe with a duplication of timely themes or risk going someplace new and preferably more frightening?
It seems we were in bloody good hands all along. Jordan Peele knows what scares us, in this case exploring the possibility we are not ourselves: a crisis of identity. Pasting pseudoscience references together with a sticky mixture of psychological and physical horror, Us is a sinister symphony of symbolism (say that three times fast). From keeping up with the Joneses to Rorschach imagery and reflections, the sources of the creative choices being made are sometimes obvious and other times obscure. The slow build, creepy reveals, and sudden bloodsplatter pull no punches. With POV camera angles orchestrated by the cinematographer of It Follows, it’s easy to imagine being there… and really wishing to be somewhere else.
Music is an integral part of the film, specifically the Luniz/Michael Marshall 1995 track “I Got 5 On It.” While films like Happy Death Day have used music in the trailer (50 Cent’s “In Da Club”) but not in the film, Luniz provides the “Tethered Mix” throughout Us to extend the audible creepiness from trailer to feature. Sorry, Jason — it’s about drugs — but dragging the tempo with the added the orchestral violins as the vocals fade feels a bit like losing your mind… which serves the overarching theme well. There are a few other intentionally ironic musical cues, dark humor played in contrast against dire situations. In an EW interview, the director said, “I feel like the beat in that song has this inherent cryptic energy, almost reminiscent of the Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack” that it contained “a haunting element.”
What happens to the family in the film could happen to any family of any nationality, so it’s as different as conceivably possible from Peele’s freshman debut. Without giving away secrets, pay close attention to everything… especially those moments where viewers wonder how or why certain things have happened or are happening. Like Get Out, it’s both bigger and more intimate than you might suspect; everything is on the screen and well-acted, but thinking back to where it all began after it’s been seen is a true joy. Playing to Stephen King’s fetish for making “the most mundane, everyday objects” terrifying, Peele is hitting on all cylinders — a bit like driving a flaming 1958 Plymouth Fury.
Us is rated R for violence/terror, language, and The Tethered.
Four skull recommendation out of four