Break out your decoder rings; the flawed but intriguing Us’s political subtleness is hidden by its straightforward terror. Among other things, Jordan Peele’s followup to Get Out breaks a long drought. Santa Cruz, with its deep cold bay and hoodooed mountains, ought to be California’s Transylvania. Instead, it’s remembered for The Lost Boys, which is just The Goonies wearing plastic vampire fangs. There hasn’t been a good movie made there since Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Now the curse is lifted, even if much of Us is shot in a lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.
There’s a strange ride at the Beach Boardwalk that most visitors fail to notice. In 1986, young Adelaide slips away from her family and wanders into “The Shaman’s Cave.” Passing an old derelict holding up a cardboard sign with a particularly vicious Bible verse (“Jeremiah 11:11”), she enters. An electric owl calls her name. Amid the hall of mirrors and the painted images of redwoods, her identical double awaits.
Somehow she survived. In our present, she (Lupita Nyong’o) is a calm, pretty mom married to a living dad-joke, Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke of Black Panther). Two kids: one a monkey-mask-loving, naughty little boy Jason (Evan Alex), the elder, a disdainful daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). They are as tight as the quartet of stick figures on the back window of their SUV.
The “Shaman’s Cave” is still on the beach 30 years later, with a new paint job. It’s Arthurian now instead of Native American. The doorway beckons young Jason.
That night as the Wilsons go to bed, the power goes off. Standing in the driveway are four figures in red jumpsuits, smiling maliciously, armed with long sharp scissors. Each wears a driving glove on one hand, Michael Jackson–style, perhaps to keep the blood from making their weapons slip. Jason’s monkeyish double is crouched on all fours. On his face is what the burn-ward doctors call a “TFO mask”—so you’ll know what to ask for next Halloween. At some cost, the family gives their captors the slip. But they’re not the only ones being visited tonight.
Home invasion terror isn’t always elegant, but it’s always effective. Peele is a genial shocker: the comic relief arrives between never-too-horrible mayhem. Before the attack, Gabe lounges in plaid shorts, waiting for his wife in what he hopes is an alluring position. It’s funny and tragic, too, when the cuddly man tries to act badass to scare off the intruders.
The movie’s suggestiveness is in the title, which could be misread as “U.S.”; what will be the fate of a society divided between “influencers” and the influenced? Deeper analysis of Us will be deserved. Nyong’o is constantly startling with her display of terror and maternal wrath. As seen on Us’s sensational poster, Nyong’o is a master of the horror-face, a look described in the theater world as ‘the skull.’
‘Us’ is playing in wide release.