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This is ‘Us’

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Horror cinema has long been a genre whose flexibility has allowed it to serve as a remarkable vehicle for the delivery of big and complex ideas. The allegorical underpinnings of horror movies allow filmmakers to spark conversations about the complicated entanglements of the world in which we live on both macro and micro levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele took advantage of horror’s flexibility and shifted the paradigm with his 2017 debut film “Get Out,” building a film that was both bitingly socially satiric and legitimately tense and scary. That movie’s wild critical (Oscar nominations for Actor, Director and Picture and a win for Original Screenplay) and commercial (over $250 million at the global box office against a budget under $5 million) success meant a whole lot of anticipation for (and pressure on) the follow-up.

And “Us” clears every bar.

Peele’s latest horror thriller delves into the tropes of home invasions and evil twins and more, using those genre touchstones as part of a meaningful conversation about social stratification and class warfare and other important issues confronting the America of today. I’ll put it this way – “Us” could easily be read as “U.S.” … and that’s certainly not a coincidence.

This film is driven by Peele’s burgeoning confidence as a filmmaker, rife with the cultural references that marked his earlier work while also leaning into the development of a striking and compelling visual aesthetic. The director’s technical proficiency has grown significantly; that, plus a much larger budget, has resulted in some absolutely stunning screen snapshots. It is smart and thoughtful, true, but make no mistake – there’s no sacrifice of tension. This is a straight-up thriller that just happens to have something to say.

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o, “Little Monsters”) is on vacation with her family. She and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke, “Avengers: Infinity War”) are bringing their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph in her big-screen debut) and Jason (Evan Alex, TV’s “Mani”) to a lake house. At first, all seems well – the kids are squabbling like kids do, while Gabe is dishing out the dad jokes with reckless abandon. But things soon go … wrong.

Gabe wants to take the family to the beach in Santa Cruz, but Adelaide is still haunted by a memory from her childhood, a moment when she got separated from her family at the boardwalk and wound up lost in a mostly-abandoned house of mirrors. A moment when she was confronted by … herself. Not a reflection, but a doppelganger. Even a modicum of recovery from the experience took years, but she remains so impacted by it that she has never shared it with her family.

That proximity soon proves to lead down some terrifying paths, however, as one evening, she and her family look out a window to see another family, cloaked in shadow, standing in their driveway. This mysterious group – all clad in red jumpsuits, all conspicuously and creepily silent – forces its way into the house, where the Wilson family makes a bizarre and terrible discovery.

This other family … is them.

Each of the four Wilsons is represented by a twisted, cracked mirror version of themselves; each is frightening in their own right, but none of the intruders ooze malevolence quite like Red, Adelaide’s shadowy twin. The two families face off, eye to eye – one group calm and sinister, the other confused and afraid – as the nature of their connection is made clear (well, clearer, anyway).

And then it gets REALLY weird.

In terms of synopsis, we’re not much farther along here than the first act, but that’s the thing – “Us” is a film whose experience will be undermined by spoilers. And there are a LOT of things that happen that would serve to do just that. There’s more – MUCH more – but it can’t be discussed in detail without risking the integrity of the initial viewing experience.

That doesn’t mean that we’re lacking in things to talk about, though. Far from it.

“Us” is an unbelievable effort from a filmmaker who, lest we forget, has only one previous feature under his belt. The pressure to follow the enormous success of “Get Out” must have been massive, yet Peele still manages to make the movie that he wants to make. And as far as follow-up efforts go, it’s an unbelievable accomplishment – no sophomore slump here.

Part of that comes from seeing Peele brandishing the visual vocabulary that he’s developing at a shocking speed. There are so many arresting images here, some beautiful and some brutal and some an unsettling combination of both. His aesthetic gifts have grown in leaps and bounds from his already-strong showing with “Get Out” – “Us” is a sumptuous and rich viewing experience.

Peele also demonstrates his ability to draw exceptional work from his actors. Lupita Nyong’o gives an absolutely breathtaking performance in the dual roles of Adelaide and Red; the contrast between the two is so striking that you forget that it’s the same person. She shoulders the narrative load on both sides of the terminator, leading the way on both the light side and the dark. Adelaide is haunted and fearful; Red is relentless and coldly cruel. Both are magnetic as hell. It’s an award-worthy performance, genre prejudices be damned.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Duke’s Gabe is affable and goofy, joking all the way to the end; as Abraham, he’s a menacing, hulking brute. Joseph is a typical young teenager – all snark and attitude – as Zora, while bringing a bright-eyed evil to her portrayal of Umbrae. And the sophistication of young Evan Alex’s work as the quirky Jason and the damaged Pluto belies his youth. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are both outstanding in supporting roles.

And of course, the ideas. The notions of class and social stratification are explored with little in the way of proselytizing (though there are moments where it does get a touch heavy-handed); this well-executed horror thriller makes for a wonderful delivery system.

“Us” is the sort of thematically challenging and compellingly constructed film that we rarely see spring into the mainstream. It is a horror movie and it is more than a horror movie. Yes, it has its imperfections, particularly in a muddy third act, but that’s a minor quibble with what is otherwise an incredible film.

This is “Us.” And this is us. See it for yourself.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 March 2019 14:18

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