In the opening sequence of Us, Jordan Peele gives the audience what it might be expecting after months of hype for his follow-up to Get Out: a perfectly taut piece of virtuoso horror filmmaking. A little girl (played by Madison Curry) frolics with her family at a seaside funfair, then wanders off as her dad plays a carnival game, eventually winding up alone in a haunted house. It’s a place for cheap scares, one that tries to jolt you by having things burst out of the wall. But Peele (who wrote, produced, and directed) has more unsettling sights in store, including something so disturbing that the camera takes in only the girl’s reaction, her eyes widening with shock.
It’s a thrilling sequence that feels as if Peele is laying down a marker after the success of his Oscar-winning debut film. Get Out was also a horror movie, but a wry, satirical one, the kind that could be nominated for comedy awards and still scar entire generations of viewers with its notion of “the sunken place.” In its dread-suffused opening moments, Us is utterly serious. But as the plot moves forward, the film becomes more complicated, more outrageous, and in a lot of ways, more daringly funny and topical than its predecessor. Us is a glorious symphony of fear, to be sure, but it’s also an ambitious sci-fi allegory and a pitch-black comedy of the haves and have-nots.
The rest of Us takes place more than 30 years after that incident at the haunted house. The little girl is now a grown woman, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), who’s married to an adorable lunkhead named Gabe (Winston Duke) with whom she has two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). The Wilsons travel to their beach house in Santa Cruz, the same town where Adelaide had her fateful encounter long ago, looking to unwind. The trappings are pleasant (even though the basement is slightly creepy), but Adelaide is a haunted woman, unable to let go of some unspoken fragment of her childhood.
After a good amount of buildup, during which we’re introduced to the Wilsons’ entitled, somewhat vacuous friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), the nightmare begins. A family of four, identical to the Wilson unit, stands outside their home silently in the night. These curious doppelgängers, all dressed in red jumpsuits and carrying pairs of golden scissors, take a long time to reveal the extent of their backstory. But their malevolence is clear almost instantly. Much of Us is a home-invasion movie, with the delightfully nasty twist that each of the invaders is a cracked-mirror image of one of the family members.
Peele has such a gift for generating terror through blocking and simple camera movements that he never has to rely on lame jump scares to rack up the tension. The members of the faux-Wilson family, who refer to themselves as “the Tethered,” all have a defined personality, petrifying their respective doubles in ways that feel like eerie echoes. Gabe’s adversary, named Abraham, is a lumbering galoot, a slow-moving menace who is easy to outrun but difficult to outduel. Zora’s enemy, Umbrae, shares her running ability, while Jason is besieged by Pluto, who is fond of fire. Adelaide’s opposite is Red, an inscrutable mother figure with total command over her family; she speaks in riddles with a low, strangled voice, explaining things and deepening the confusion simultaneously.
The dual performance from Nyong’o is particularly impressive. Though all the actors in the main ensemble have fun playing their monstrous other, Nyong’o invests hers with unnerving pathos, drawing incredible distinctions between the characters through body language and that bizarre howl of a voice. After her Oscar-winning work in 12 Years a Slave, Nyong’o has been mostly consigned to supporting turns in Disney blockbusters such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Jungle Book, and Black Panther. Peele has written a tremendous lead role for her to tackle, and she does so with aplomb, grounding the film in an emotional reality as the mayhem grows more intense.
For most of its two-hour running time, Us is a straightforward but effective piece of horror, a bloody siege with a supernatural element that functions as a broad metaphor (a hallmark of the genre). The Tethered are “others” in every sense of the word. They present as opposites, as alien trespassers, and as an unspoken underclass who can be easily dismissed as enemies. But Peele asks the audience to look past that superficial monstrousness for a root cause and, of course, to look in the mirror at ourselves.
In the last act of Us, Peele delves further into that metaphor and unearths elaborate storytelling concepts for the audience, explaining the origins of the Tethered and the deeper motivations for their incursion. The information comes so thick and fast that it might be hard to parse the logic of it all, but Peele is up to the task. He’s created a film that functions just fine as a high-velocity thriller, loaded with gory scares and indelible imagery. The movie is so rife with ideas that it should inspire multiple trips to the theater for its most devoted fans, because it ends not on a definitive answer but on a trenchant question for viewers to ponder on their way out. Us is a thrill ride, a somber parable, and a potential first chapter in a vast, encyclopedic sci-fi story; talented as ever, Peele has found a way to cram all of that into a gleeful blast of a film.