US

  1. US. Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker. Directed by Jordan Peele. 116 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and violence).

The first forty minutes of ‘Us’ are almost unbearably tense. From the opening scene, freshly perturbed by an opening title card that alerts viewers to the thousands of miles of abandoned tunnels that lie underneath the continental United States, there is a pervading sense of profound threat. It’s 1986 and young girl Adelaide (Madison Curry) is on holiday in Santa Cruz with her mother and father. Wandering away from her parents, Adelaide finds herself in a mirror maze, where she is confronted by her doppelgänger. Who or what is she? Where did she come from? These unanswered questions are quickly superseded by others, particularly “why are the opening credits playing over an unbroken dolly out from a wall of rabbits in cages, and why do these rabbits make me feel so uneasy?” Perhaps it’s Michael Abel’s unsettling score, filled with melodic chanting and tribal drums, or perhaps it’s just a residual tension from the opening scene.

In the present day, a grown-up Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) has returned to her family’s summer home with her own family in tow: her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). Against her best judgement, Gabe convinces her to take a day trip to Santa Cruz with the kids, where they catch up with friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and their twin girls Becca (Cali Sheldon) and Lindsey (Noelle Sheldon). After Jason ducks off to the bathroom without telling his parents and Adelaide summarily freaks out, they pack up and head back to the holiday house.

That night, Adelaide tells Gabe about her experience as a child, about the lasting trauma of the event that left her mute for months, and her long-held feeling of being pursued by her dark shadow from the maze. Being back at the beach near the house of mirrors has Gabe does his best to comfort her, but – as if on cue – their home’s power fails and a family of doppelgängers wearing deep red jumpsuits and brandishing large pairs of golden scissors appear at the top of their driveway. Thus begins a night of horror for our vulnerable leads, as their uncanny visitors begin a terrifying invasion.

‘Us’ is the second feature from writer-director Jordan Peele, who went from being one half of renowned sketch comedy duo Key & Peele to an Oscar-winning filmmaker with his debut film, 2015’s horror hit ‘Get Out’. That movie incubated the kernel of an eerie sci-fi plot in a hotpot of keenly observed racial commentary with great success. ‘Us’ has different ambitions, perhaps loftier ones, as it doesn’t clearly have a bold statement to make. It just wants to confront its audience, to scare and thrill. Once the family have come to terms with the nature of threat facing them, the plot turns into a more straightforward chase thriller, shedding some of its horror in the process. Depending on what you go into ‘Us’ hoping for, this may be a disappointment, but for others it will represent a huge reprieve. However, even when the plot becomes more traditional, the script remains resolutely strange. Where Peele succeeds most in both of his films is in taking a simple premise and deepening it, adding unexpected layers of meaning and complexity. Peele is evidently more preoccupied by big ideas than by neat conclusions, particularly in the film’s twisty ending, which will send viewers out of the cinema questioning everything that they’ve just seen, possibly even angrily (I frustratingly fell into the latter category). Whatever your feelings toward to the film ultimately are though, you will have to concede that ‘Us’ is as bold as any film you’ll ever see a major studio distributing.

In addition to his increasingly pronounced screenwriting signatures, Peel’s directorial voice is more confident this time around, more distinctive, even with his plentiful references to the sunny seaside films of the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to the unique touches like the red jumpsuits and curious obsession with rabbits, ‘Us’ culminates with a beautiful, strange dance finale, skilfully constructed by Peele with choreographer Madeline Hollander and enhanced by Michael Abel’s astonishing score, which transforms from a haunting string piece into a sonic shockwave of intense power.

His work with actors, though, is just as terrific as it was on ‘Get Out’, in which British TV star Daniel Kaluuya delivered one of the best transatlantic turns in recent memory as a young African American threatened by rich white folk. In ‘Us’, Lupita Nyong’o is utterly fearless in the lead. Adelaide is damaged but defiant, terrified that her family will be harmed and willing to aggressively protect them. In her interactions with her kin and her stalker, you get the sense of both the trauma of her childhood incident and the hardness that her recovery instilled in her. As her husband Gabe, Winston Duke, who played M’Baku opposite Nyong’o in ‘Black Panther’, is a goofy but comforting presence. However, both Duke and Nyong’o terrify as their doppelgängers, Red and Abraham, the former earning plenty of shivers down spines with her tortured voice. Similarly, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are solid as their kids, but reach another, wonderfully horrifying level as their twisted counterparts. Wright Joseph works miracles with a seemingly locked in head tilt and toothless grin, while Alex’s doppelgänger – who wears a mask and moves about on all fours like a hound – is an impressive exercise in physicality from the young performer. Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss are both brilliant as well, both hilariously playing against type as their wealthy, acerbic friends. The duo claims more than their fair share of the laughs peppered through the screenplay and inject their limited screen time with memorable physical comedy too. 

I recently reviewed the sequel to ‘The Lego Movie’ and wrapped up my take commenting on how the filmmakers set themselves an impossibly high bar to clear with their excellent first film. ‘Us’ feels a little like that – ‘Get Out’ was such an unexpected breakout hit for Peele that so many people now almost automatically qualify their take on ‘Us’ by starting with “It’s not as good as ‘Get Out’”. While I agree with the majority here (‘Us’ just isn’t as focused or as satisfying), it is decent enough to stand on its own merits. While the ending left me cold, I know others that loved it. It is almost wilfully divisive filmmaking. The clarity of vision on display (even with the murkier storytelling) is impressive, and one cannot but help me excited about whatever nightmare Peele cooks up next.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out March 28.

Universal Pictures.


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