I was six years-old in 1986, and I have a vivid memory of the Hands Across America initiative. We were visiting my aunt’s house on the day it was to happen, and I thought that people were actually going to step out of their houses at the designated time and literally hold hands across the entire country. How disappointed I was when I eagerly ran out of my aunt’s house onto her front porch and saw no one holding hands. Jordan Peele must have had a similar memory, and he uses that sense of disappointment in hope as a set-up to his newest complex and fitfully terrifying horror opus, Us.
There’s a palpable sense of dread in the film’s 1986 prologue where a little girl wanders away from her parents at a Santa Cruz fun fair and has a harrowing experience in a house of mirrors. Later, as an adult, that same little girl finds herself back on that beach during a family vacation that leads to a home invasion by a red-suited, scissor-carrying family of shadows. Dopplegangers brood throughout Peele’s sophomore effort as a writer and director, and with a larger budget, he casts his net of ideas broader than he did in the succinctly satirical Get Out. There’s a lot going on here, and Peele has clearly found his groove in setting a unique mood, cutting tension with his now signature sense of humor, and then going all out in turning modern horror film tropes on their head. Bunnies and beaches, social commentary and mass killings, ballet and butchery…it’s all on the table, and it’s gripping, fascinating and sometimes confounding. Peele leaves no horror cliché unturned, including the twist ending, which I assumed during the first sand-tray therapy scene. In lesser hands, it could have become a bloody mess, but Peele shows complete control of his runaway train wreck.
Peele’s cast is more than up to the task of carrying the audience along through his fun house of horrors. In the lead role, Lupita Nyong’o gives one of the all-time great horror performances. She’s so good, I’m not even sure I fully comprehended how good she was yet. As her husband, Winston Duke provides most of the comic relief without ever coming across as annoying, and he’s clearly a stand-in for Peele. As their children, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are real, sympathetic, and resourceful. As the African-American family’s crassly rich Caucasian friends, Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker (who, like Peele, comes from a similarly absurdist comedy background) are spot-on and comically unnerving. All take great glee in playing their own shadows.
And then there’s that score from Michel Abels that has a chance to become as iconic as Goblin’s Suspiria theme. It gets under your skin with nightmarish efficiency and is married perfectly to Peele’s expertly rising tension.
I’m still not fully sure what Us was all about it, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t wildly entertaining on every conceivable level in spite of that messy denouement and telegraphed-too-early twist.
“Who are you?” Lupita Nyong’o asks her terrifying shadow. “We’re Americans,” the shadow replies. I can imagine film students debating what that means for decades to come. And if we’re lucky, Peele will be leaving audiences hair-raised and making us think twice about why we’re scared of what we’re scared of for the rest of his career.