FILM REVIEW – US. With Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R for violence/terror, and language. 118 minutes.
Jordan Peele’s first film, “Get Out” (2017) was one of those rare movies where everyone – audiences and critics alike – realized we were seeing something special. Known primarily as a comic performer (from his work with Keegan-Michael Key), he amazed everyone with a masterfully told horror story that turned out to be more than just a series of shocks. It’s a tough film to top.
US is a very good horror film – there’s no “sophomore slump” in effect here – but it lacks the heft of “Get Out.” It also shows that while Peele’s talent is still impressive, he’s not quite able to put over every plot twist. That’s not a slam. Alfred Hitchcock didn’t score every time either. “Us” shows that Peele is a talented writer/director who will continue to demand attention, and hopefully learned something in the process of making his second film.
The premise is a spin on a familiar horror trope, the discovery that there are doppelgängers (i.e., duplicates) who are ready and eager to replace their originals. As a young girl, Adelaide confronts one such twin at a beachside amused park. The experience so traumatized her that, years later, her husband’s desire (Winston Duke) that they go that very beach while on vacation triggers a bout of anxiety.
One night the Wilson family (including Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the kids) notice there’s four people standing in their driveway. In something out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” they are seeming clones. Each of the duplicates (played by the same actors) is scary in their own way, and for a while each of the Wilsons has to fight back on their own.
Peele ups the ante when we discover that the Wilson’s situation is not unique, as them try to figure out how to survive. As with “Get Out,” the horror is mixed with satiric humor. There are genuine laughs here mixed with equally genuine scares. There are also shots that – after two films – seem to be a Peele signature: a closeup of a frightened face with tears running down it.
While there are some amusing/scary moments with Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as friends of the family, the focus is on the four Wilsons. Lupita Nyong’o notches another memorable role as the two characters vying for her life, and Duke has his moments as the laid-back father trying to cope with the situation. The children are also effective, with Joseph especially scary as the smiling double of daughter Zora.
Where the film stumbles is in trying to wrap it up. The explanation of how these doubles came to be makes little sense, and the payoff makes no sense at all. Indeed, it seems to undercut what we’ve already seen. There’s several twists, as well as a bizarre take on the 1986 stunt “Hands Across America,” which may not resonate for younger viewers. Peele seems to be stretching to find some way to shock the audience late in the film as opposed to coming up with a coherent conclusion to his story.
“Us” may be flawed, but it’s well worth seeing. Indeed, if this had been Peele’s first film, we’d be proclaiming him a talent to watch. It’s only because he’s already done “Get Out” that some viewers may be left with the feeling that it’s a film that falls short.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.