‘Us’ is comfortably uncomfortable

“Us” is writer-director Jordan Peele’s sophomore outing. And it’s a doozy. This follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Get Out” is a rabid, manic film filled with murderous doppelgangers and potent themes. It’s a haunting medley of horror and levity that shapes an unforgettable experience.

On the surface, “Us” is about a family vacation turned nightmare. A home invasion movie that spirals into something out of “The Twilight Zone.”

Right out of the gate, Peele makes sure we’re nice and uncomfortable. Beginning in 1986 — a time the movie will frequently call back to — young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders off from her parents at a Santa Cruz boardwalk. She stumbles upon a funhouse eerily situated by itself on the nearby beach. Above the entrance are the words “Find Yourself.” It’s multilayered foreshadowing at its best.

And of course, she goes in.

What we experience inside sets the tone for the rest of the film. It also lets us know from the onset we’re in good hands.

Peele quickly turns the environment against us, a technique he’ll deftly employ until the credits roll. He exploits the tight space and mirrors to manufacture an engulfing sense of anxiety. It all crescendos into an unsettling image when the child bumps into a reflection of herself. Except it’s not a mirror.

All this informs the present when adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) returns to Santa Cruz with her husband (Winston Duke) and their two kids for a family vacation and are terrorized by a family who looks just like them but are the horrifying, scissor-wielding inverses of their very being.

“Us” unfolds in lurid bouts of violence and shock with genuine laugh-out-loud moments in between. Peele taps “It Follows” cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who proves again he has a knack for turning ordinary spaces into unnerving frames that can be both fascinating and unnerving to look at.

The cast does a lot of heavy lifting, many of them pulling double duty as they’re also tasked with playing their opposites. Nyong’o offers up brilliant, multifaceted performances. By the end of the movie, it isn’t clear which deserves more recognition.

On one hand, Adelaide is psychologically tattered. It’s as if she’s perpetually splitting at the seams. But she’s also stoic, brave and the backbone of the family. On the other, Red, her homicidal doppelganger, appears locked in a wide-eyed, thousand-yard stare. Her speech is guttural, and she moves about with an otherworldly grace that may cement her as one of horror’s new iconic images.

Duke, largely tasked with injecting humor when the story needs a shot of respite, gets to show off his comedic chops as the dorky dad who seems incapable of not firing off a salvo of dad jokes every waking minute.

Throughout “Us,” Peele borrows from many of filmmaking’s greats: Spielberg, Kubrick, De Palma and Polanski, to name a few. But that’s not to diminish what he’s doing here. He manages to salute the greats while cementing himself as one of the industry’s most original, exciting and ambitious filmmakers. Don’t be surprised when you see his name among those virtuosos above.

Just like “Get Out,” “Us” has plenty to say. Also like its predecessor, nothing is sacrificed in order to say it. “Us” is first and foremost a horror movie. What you’re able to take away from it is icing on the cake.

On that, “Us” raises some interesting ideas: What happens when the very worst of who we are comes home to roost? What happens when an entire culture antithetical to who we are, or who we thought we were, is simmering just below the surface (literally in this case), just waiting for some catalyst to send it boiling over onto the streets?

Sound familiar? If not, Peele, at one point, even plays it a little heavy, underscoring the current us-versus-them climate permeating the U.S. Adelaide asks Red, and, in a sense, asks herself, “Who are you?” And she answers, in a disturbing, grating screech, “We’re Americans.”

Even the title “Us” suggests far for more than the obvious.

But this is just one interpretation. Peele is never didactic. He simply puts it on the screen. What you take away from it will be whatever you make of it, which is the sign of a great piece of art.

That is, art should pose questions, not answer them. And what better question is there than what “Us” asks us: “Who are we?”

“Us” is rated R and runs for 116 minutes. It’s currently playing in area cinemas including Salem Twin Cinema.

Conrad Smith is a Canfield resident and former intern at the Salem News. He’s passionate about film and enjoys writing about the industry.


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