Us is one of those movies that will provoke polarized responses from audiences and lots of flowery adjectives from a needlessly verbose individual like me. At once, this movie is audacious, infectiously funny, and relentlessly weird. Writer-director Jordan Peele simultaneously blends unsettling suspense with an off-center wackiness that will frustrate some viewers and enthrall others. For those who can successfully get into its groove, Us will prove to be an uncommonly strong horror offering.
The movie begins in 1986, as young Adelaide and her parents enjoy a beachside carnival. The little girl wanders off, and ends up in a hall of mirrors. There, she realizes that one of the reflections is actually her mute doppelgänger, and promptly flees in horror. Flash-forward to now, and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) treks back to that same area with her dorky husband (Winston Duke) and kids (Shahadi Wright and Evan Alex) in tow. This nuclear family discovers, to their horror, that e’rrybody has a doppelgänger, and all these evil twins are about to come slobbering out of the sewers for a full-on kill spree.
Don’t worry, this is even goofier than it sounds. And Peele knows it, too. He injects plenty of savvy humor to smooth out the flavor of his bizarre narrative: Duke plays adorable dad-bod geekdom to absolute perfection, and Nyong’o is the perfect foil as his much cooler and well-rounded wife. Elisabeth Banks clearly has a blast as an obnoxious, mimosa-fueled brunch mom and her maniacal, Deliverance-style counterpart. Peele spends enough time on every character to make sure nobody comes across as a horror cliché. And, like many other modern movies, Us takes a Scrooge McDuck swan dive into a bin of 80s nostalgia. Children of the 80s will recognize references to “Hands Across America,” Thriller, and Micro-Machines. (The Micro-Machines that changed color in hot water were seriously the coolest things ever!) Hopefully, this Stranger Things-inspired trend of wallowing in the Reagan years will expire before it starts getting old.
From a horror perspective, Peele largely eschews the old blood-and-guts routine for some classic Twilight Zone head games. Characters are forced to confront their mirror images, which naturally knocks their mental stability right off the hinges. Peele makes the bravura move of having his opposites interact with each other, leading to some genuinely creepy moments. Like any master of suspense, Peele realizes that nothing is more frightening than the churning anxiety we can brew in our own heads.
Peele’s story travels further into left field as it goes along, and while some may find this off-putting, it was absolutely the right move. A boring ending would’ve taken all the air of such a unapologetically eccentric film. Some movies may defy description, but this one seems to invite it: Us has some rare, and seemingly contradictory combinations: It’s somehow familiar and fresh, scary and smart. For horror fans, this is one you don’t want to miss.