They say the thing we fear most is the unknown, and perhaps they’re right. But if “Us,” the newest film by Jordan Peele, is any indication, the greatest of all terrors might just be that which we thought we knew best: ourselves.
As the Wilson family arrives at their Santa Cruz vacation home, matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) carries a heavy emotional burden. Thirty years after a traumatic childhood encounter involving a beachside house of mirrors, she still has trouble shaking off an inexplicable sense of dread and paranoia as she returns to what should be a boardwalk paradise. Still, her sullen mood does little to infringe upon her husband Gabe’s (Winston Duke) goofy antics, teenage daughter Zora’s (Shahadi Wright Joseph) smartphone-stimulated apathy and preteen son Jason’s (Evan Alex) meandering sense of curiosity.
Then the Tethered arrive.
The family is apprehensive when they spot a quartet of shadowy figures at the end of their driveway, standing statuesque and hand-in-hand, who then force their way into the house. After they corner the Wilsons into the living room, the youngest intruder lights the fireplace to reveal, to the family’s horror, that the visitors are their exact doppelgangers — each clad in a red jumpsuit, armed with a slender pair of scissors and hell-bent on murdering his or her double.
From that perplexing revelation onward, “Us” manages to be a non-stop thrill ride, while still determinedly taking its time; each frame is evidence of a filmmaker who is in control of his creation and eager to challenge his audience. Peele makes full use of his greatest gifts here, including an artist’s eye and a craftsman’s restraint — traits that are incredibly rare in the genre nowadays. He combines big-budget sensibilities with carefully constructed tension, as well as the deeply threaded social commentary that made his previous feature, “Get Out,” stick with viewers; not a moment feels wasted, from the first act’s slow character build-up to an ending that demands endless interpretation and speculation.
Though Peele’s knack for creating a lasting cinematic experience is undeniable, his ambitions are fully realized with the help of perhaps the strongest cast of any film so far this year. Each of the four principal performers, tasked with portraying both a well fleshed-out protagonist and a deeply unsettling villain, delivers spectacularly. Nyong’o’s performance, in particular, is bound to be one of the most talked-about of 2019; she skillfully swerves between fearful and furious, matronly and menacing, often within the same scene. Duke pulls more than his weight as the film’s primary source of comic relief, all while imbuing Gabe with a vulnerability that keeps the character compelling. Both child actors are bound for future stardom, more than able to take on Peele’s daring demands with understated grace.
Like the best film fare, “Us” has the power to infect viewers with an itching curiosity that will linger long after they’ve left their seats. Though there are several definite logical gaps in the mythology of Peele’s world, they hardly strike one as inconvenient or illusion-shattering; more often, they are the mark of a story that is content to leave some questions unanswered, giving the viewer just enough incentive to revisit the nightmare again and again. And with a film so gorgeously shot, rivetingly acted and refreshingly unique as this, that’s an invitation movie lovers will surely be happy to accept.
I give “Us” four and a half out of five stars. For a more in-depth discussion of “Us” and its many deeper themes, listen to the latest episode of my podcast, Reel Underdogs.