You’re in for a bloody good time with the creepy genre-bender “Us.”
Jordan Peele’s hotly awaited follow-up to his Oscar-winning cultural phenomenon “Get Out” bucks the dreaded sophomore slump and overinflated expectations, whipping up a mentally chewy nervewracker that’ll have you dissecting it for days, months, years, decades afterwards.
It has ambition to spare and proves that Peele’s the real deal, a provocative auteur with the visual and technical acumen of a veteran filmmaker. He’s also a daring screenwriter who takes razor-sharp swipes at relevant social issues with his existential horror. As with “Get Out,” this one draws literal and figurative blood. And take note, “Us” is bloodier and more frightening than “Get Out.”
Peele again manipulates and bends horror conventions as he explores cultural attitudes and identities through a frightening, sometimes humorous story about a vacationing family terrorized by freaky folks who look just like them.
The result is another innovative work with a lot on its mind. How much so? “Us” will have many of you embarking on a furious Google search about one particular biblical verse to see if it yields more context.
Most of “Us” speeds along perfectly, until a shocking finale when Peele powers through a pivotal sequence. It all goes down so dizzyingly fast it might leave you wondering what the heck just happened. But that might well be Peele’s intention, to encourage us to mull the symbolism in his serpentine narrative. Given how great this hall-of-mirrors ride is, I suspect fans will be more than willing to do so – and will be eager to dive in for repeat viewings.
I know I will.
On first blush, Peele appears to be delivering a traditional horror story.
Adelaide Wilson (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) is a haunted, well-to-do mom vacationing with her cute hubby Gabe (“Black Panther’s” Winston Duke) and their two resourceful children, the teen-aged Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger Jason (Evan Alex).
They’re hanging at their cushy summer vacation property — mom’s old homestead — near Santa Cruz. But the boardwalk there doesn’t inspire sunny memories for mom, as she recalls a creeped-out experience from one carnival attraction.
But, reluctantly, Adelaide brings her family to the beach, where they meet up with their annoying and narcissistic chums (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their narcissistic teen daughters (real-life twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon). It doesn’t take long before the bad omens emerge.
One night,a strange brood pops up outside that summer home. It becomes obvious there’s something’s wrong — and that’s an understatement — with this doppelganger family. But just as you are settling in for what looks to be a standard “don’t do that you fool” horror film, Peele sets off in other directions.
The filmmaker has many aces up his sleeve and wants to do more than just scare the dickens out you. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
But what can be said is that he has cast this film perfectly. Nyong’o pulls off the double act with perfect reactions from both the film’s protagonist and her mirror image. It’s a performance that grows in meaning and layers as the film progresses. Duke, on the other hand, is as endearing as a teddy bear as her husband, a guy who doesn’t always make the right move.
Both Joseph and Alex, as their children, create two very different and fully realized characters. Meanwhile, Moss and Heidecker provide some eye-rolling moments as hedonists, living the good life with the extravagance of modern conveniences and the soul-sucking sucking concerns about themselves.
Every element in this film serves a purpose and is set up like a chess move, from the soundtrack to the detailed production values. (Be sure to check out the old VHS tapes in a flashback sequence).
All of this fuels Peele’s American nightmare, a startling vision that’ll change not only how you feel when you hear the Luniz ’90s hip-hop hit “I Got 5 On It,” but how you feel when a curiously familiar stranger passes by. If you see just a glint of a pair scissors, run. Run fast.
Randy Myers is a freelance correspondent covering film and is the president of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
3.5 stars out of 4
Rated: R (violence, terror, language)
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Director and screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute