“Us” isn’t the scintillating, scary satiric indictment of racism in America that “Get Out” was. So by that measure, it’s a disappointment.
But Jordan Peele’s made another horror film that will have audiences chattering in tones of “What’s it REALLY about?” as they exit the cineplex, so call that a “win” and may Universal keep millions upon millions of dollars out of the hands of Disney…for now.
It’s just that his riff on race has turned to into a critique on class, a trickier subject. His surprise twists aren’t that surprising and seem pointless as he circles around his “point.”
And he’s made a zombie invasion thriller/“Twilight Zone” homage that writes and then breaks its own rules. Sometimes you kill them and they stay dead, often they don’t, etc.
So we have met a mixed bag of a thriller, and it is “Us.”
The Wilsons are African American Affluenza, San Franciscans who have a coastal vacation home north of the city. They get there by Mercedes station wagon, hobnob with friends just as affluent — designer homes, Land Rovers.
But Santa Cruz has horrific memories for wife and mother Adelaide (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o). The film’s prologue shows her in 1986, a tiny tyke whose distracted father lost track of her at a beachside amusement park. One wander into the mirrored funhouse later and little Addie was scarred for life — or at least a very long time.
Gabe (Winston Duke, Nyong’o’s “Black Panther” co-star) is somewhat clueless about all that. He’s intent on getting the kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) to that same beach, to catching up with their Keeping Up with the Joneses friends (Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker).
That beach is where Addie starts seeing “coincidences,” and where her pranks-prone little boy Jason wanders off and sees a strange man, one we’ve already noted has a Biblical prophecy on his cardboard panhandler’s note — “Jeremiah 11:11.”
So it’s no shock when that very night, the lights flicker and four rough-hewn, crazy-eyed strangers dressed in red jump suits show up in their driveway.
They don’t respond to questions or threats. And when the two kids in this “family” skitter into the bushes and the hulking patriarch stomps forward, Addie’s long since called the cops.
As if they’ll save them.
The standard murderous-strangers-breaking-into-the-house scenario ensues and “Keep calm, keep our head and everything’s going to be all right” is no comfort. Every pause, every twitch, every step makes the intruders more menacing.
But the revelation — arrived at by little Jason — that they’ve “met the enemy, and he is “Us” — is the twist here. They’re mute (save for the mother), grunting, grinning doppelgangers, wielding gilded scissors. And they’re here for…revenge?
Peele has a little fun at the expense of the affluent; competition over new cars, Gabe buying a boat he’s ill-equipped to cope with, the idle drinking and marital hostility of the Wilson’s white friends — cliches, all.
He has more fun with foreshadowing, throwing red herrings — fake clues — in the first act, yanking the rug out later.
But there’s nothing here we haven’t seen in a hundred other lonely-house/strangers-zombies attack movies — each character fighting back to the best of her or his strengths, letting us root for each in turn.
Duke is funny as the hapless Dad playing at being butch, making Dad jokes, playing up Dad hypocrisies (“We’re SWEARING at the dinner table, now?”).
But Nyong’o’s Addie is in command of this family and has the most information to fight back with in this situation, and Peele wisely hangs the movie on her. She brings the fierce and her “Lupita: Battle Angel” eyes are the only special effect “Us” needs.
The script’s ties to Reagan era 1986 and “Hands Across America” are fun to speculate about, the red-attire of the white and black “shadows” from “then” and “down there” who rise up to attack those of us “up here,” above them, has resonance in global and American political terms.
Not that this is nakedly obvious, or even particularly well-developed.
Peele created a cultural phenomenon with “Get Out,” and produced a Spike Lee Oscar. It’s OK that “Us” isn’t on a par with those pictures, merely a decent fright or three or four in a dawdling thriller without enough insidious characters, moments or ideas to warrant its considerable run time.
Taken by itself, it’s thought-provoking enough to pass muster. Get “Get Out” out of your head, because truly, all Peele’s two thrillers have in common is hype.
MPAA Rating: R for violence/terror, and language.
Cast:Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss
Credits: Written and directed by Jordan Peele. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:56