Jordan Peele’s magnificent debut Get Out (2017) was always going to be a hard act to follow. Us retains much that was so good about that film – the creepy atmosphere, shocks and thrills, snappy script, bold storyline and dark humour. But whereas Get Out seemed effortless and perfectly formed, Us feels a little strained and overcooked. An offbeat central idea gets bogged down by too much talky explanation. The dragged-out ending becomes tiresome and the final twist is predictable.
But this story of a family battling their mysterious look-alikes is still hugely entertaining. It features a visceral central performance from Lupita Nyong’o as mom Adelaide, whose past comes back to haunt her, and writer/director/producer Peele is generous with his cryptic puzzles, pop-culture references, gory violence, satire and comic dialogue.
Many of his best lines are delivered by likeable doofus dad-on-vacation, Gabe (Winston Duke): – “there’s a family standing in our driveway [pause]; it’s probably the neighbours”. “You don’t need the Internet,” he tells his screen-addicted kids. “You’ve got the Outernet”.
Us starts with an onscreen caption, perhaps the real-life germ of Peele’s fantastical plot idea: “There are thousands of miles of tunnels under the United States … Many have no known purpose at all.” Cut to an ‘80s tv charity advert for Hands Across America. Then we are at a beach fairground in 1986 Santa Cruz. A little girl wanders away from her dad into the hall of mirrors inside Shaman’s Vision Quest. Find Your Self, the attraction promises, and the girl does indeed bump into another girl who looks exactly like her.
Jump forward to the present. The little girl has now grown up into the mother of a sporty teenage girl and her eccentric little brother. As they are settling into their holiday home, it is invaded by red-jumpsuit wearing doppelgangers who move as fast as velociraptors and speak in strange voices. “It’s us,” says little Jason (Evan Alex).
When asked ‘what’ they are, the Mom answers “we’re Americans.” What do these ‘others’ want? To kill their ‘twins’, it seems. And we soon find out that these Hydes are attacking their Jekylls all over the USA.
By the end it all gets a bit silly. Even the score by Michael Abels, who also composed the soundtrack to Get Out, is disappointingly ‘horror by numbers’: screechy strings, subterranean bass note, mad monk choral chanting.
Is this a satire on the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’? A swipe at Trump-era division and the scapegoating of immigrants? Interviewed by Steve Rose for The Guardian Peele said:
“We are our worst enemy, not just as individuals but more importantly as a group, as a family, as a society, as a country, as a world. We are afraid of the shadowy, mysterious ‘other’ that’s gonna come and kill us and take our jobs and do whatever, but what we’re really afraid of is the thing we’re suppressing: our sin, our guilt, our contribution to our own demise … No one’s taking responsibility for where we’re at. Owning up, blaming ourselves for our part in the problems of the world is something I’m not seeing.”