I've gotta hand it to Jordan Peele: after the astounding critical and financial success of his debut feature Get Out, the Oscar-wielding writer/director could have easily said, "Now I'm abandoning genre film and my next picture is going to be a boring historical epic." Instead he double-downed on his allegiance to genre, and Us is at least ten times as scary as its predecessor. It's brilliant filmmaking, until it isn't.
Us begins with a prologue, set in 1986, at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. (When one character mutters something about a movie being shot nearby, it's a reference to the vampire flick The Lost Boys, which was indeed shot in Santa Cruz that summer. It's one of Us's many horror in-jokes.) A young girl named Adelaide drifts away from her parents one night, into a hall of mirrors under the boardwalk itself. There she meets her literal doppelgänger, who will later be identified as "Red". The frightening encounter leaves her speechless, and it takes her years to recover.
We cut to the present day, where Adelaide is now a happy, successful fortysomething (played by the thirtysomething Lupita Nyong'o) with a loving goofball husband (Winston Duke) and two good kids. This family, the Wilsons, are returning to their posh summer house in the mountains – a house that just happens to be within day-trip distance to Santa Cruz, with its beach that still terrifies Adelaide. (Why she agreed to a summer home so close to Santa Cruz, while also apparently never taking her kids to the beach before, is left unexplained.)
One night, after reluctantly agreeing to spend the day at Santa Cruz with their friends, Adelaide pleads with her husband that she wants to go home. She reveals her childhood trauma to him, but while hubby ponders whether to whisk the bunch out of there, an ultra-freaky foursome, clad in red jumpsuits and clutching golden scissors, appears on the Wilsons' driveway. It's soon obvious that this quartet consists of doppelgängers of the entire Wilson family.
At this point, anyone who saw Get Out will have been searching Us for further racial commentary. And at first, the film appears to explore the dichotomy between "bougie" blacks, represented by the wealthy, content Wilsons (whose white friends the Tylers are simply awful), and "hood" blacks, represented by the nappy-haired Red and her unnerving, lock-your-doors-there's-black-people-about family. Archetypal symbols of whiteness and blackness abound: in one key scene, the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" is cut off by N.W.A's "Fuck the Police".
However, we soon learn that it's not just the Wilsons whose doppelgängers have emerged, and Us becomes more of an allegorical war between the Haves and the Have-Nots. So up through these first two acts, we have a film that is equally nerve-wracking and unpredictable. But as with Get Out, the story's horror trappings betray a sci fi soul, and once the mystery reveals its mad scientist underpinnings, these details don't cohere but distract.
In interviews, Jordan Peele displays an eagerness to tout his films' cleverness, saying things like, "I packed a lot of Easter eggs into this one" and "I designed it so that you have to watch it again to notice all the references." Personally, I find his boastfulness off-putting; it suggests that Peele is desperate to be taken seriously as a filmmaker, and believes that visual symbolism is the clearest sign of directorial genius. There are times when Us tries too hard to convince us of how smart it really is, and its third act goes too far with its twists and explanations. It raises more questions than it answers, and I don't mean existential questions but doubts about the story's logic.
See Us anyway. It's exciting, creepy, thought-provoking, and endlessly original. Peele is a master at staging suspense, and Lupita Nyong'o puts in a superb performance. Just know that if you find yourself disappointed by the film's overreaching ending, you're not alone.