Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” pleased critics and audiences alike with an original concept that was as creepy as it was funny. We are expecting a lot from his newest film, “Us” which premiered to rave reviews at the SXSW Film Festival. Can it and he live up to all the hype? The answer is yes and no. It’s a mixed bag this time as he creates a crazy story that focuses more on the twists in the road than the road itself.
It’s 1986 in Santa Cruz, CA at an amusement park where little Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders off into a house of mirrors. With worried parents, the little girl returns, but seems traumatized. What actually happened in that house will haunt Adelaide forever. Fast forward to the current day and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family return to a vacation home near the fateful site where she disappeared as a youngster. With a gut-sinking feeling that she and her family are in danger, she wants to leave, but it’s too late. The apocalypse has begun and we witness the bizarre and gruesome tale unfold in the dark of night in a cabin in the woods.
Peele masterfully sets up an eerie and spine-chilling vibe as young Adelaide wanders off, slowly and deliberately, candy apple in hand, capturing her trance-like reaction to her surroundings. We are with her every step of the way, holding our breath as she enters a “Beetlejuice” type of house complete with a neon arrow showing the way. Jumping at the corniest of things, the image Adelaide sees before her makes her (and us) gasp. We now know what we are in for as the family comes back to the scene of the incident 30 years later.
“Us” showcases Peele’s seemingly innate ability to perfectly blend comedy and horror with the timing of a Swiss watch. Unfortunately, after the initial set up of the premise, the film becomes an exercise in typical horror gore. The family is being chased, they make stupid decisions, and blood is spilled…lots and lots of blood. Thankfully, Peele and his cast expertly continue the humor to pull us out of the shock of the brutality, allowing us to stick with it. As we learn the truth about what lies beneath our green grass, we yearn to find out how this family will survive. That’s great writing, but Peele sets up so many possible paths and red herrings throughout the film, that we feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us. And the use of a speech to explain everything in the last 20 minutes is a let down. It feels much like a classroom where the teacher dutifully spells out what actually had been going on deep inside this other realm.
While there are issues with the twists that still don’t quite square up, and to describe them would be a major spoiler, the acting from this ensemble cast is stellar. Curry’s portrayal of young Adelaide is exceptional as she is responsible for setting the tone of the entire film. That’s an incredible weight to carry and she does so with ease. Nyong’o creates two totally different personas and never do we question the “fact” that we are seeing two people on screen. Her eyes are wonderfully expressive, allowing us to understand her every thought immediately as the caring, loving mom who will do anything to save her children. Then there’s her doppelgänger who she portrays with a soulless void. Winston Duke (Gabe) adds most of the humor with his actions and reactions, both physically and verbally, lightening the heaviness of the brutal carnage that ensues. And the kids, Shahadi Wright Joseph (Zora) and Evan Alex (Jason), find the depth to give us double performances, again never questioning that there are two different people before us.
With any horror film, camera work has to be as much of a character as the actual actors. Having actors portray two different people, frequently on screen at the same time, takes some heaving lifting and it works. Additionally, and with utmost skill, the cameras have a way of making us peer around the corner to see what’s ahead. It also gives a sense of dread as it follows the characters from behind or blinding us from seeing, allowing us to only hearing what’s to come.
“Us” is a typical horror film in many ways, but the consistent humor throughout elevates it, but not to the level of Peele’s first blockbuster that had powerful social statements, humor and horror. With “Us,” it feels as if he was more interested in surprising the audience with zingers and entertaining with gore than giving us a consistently good story. And it will behoove you to look in the Bible for Jeremiah 11:11 before you go. Trust me.