Writer-director Jordan Peele’s 2017 Get Out was a brash and intriguing debut, a picture that wrestled with the notion of whether or not America can ever be a post-racial society: Vital and spooky, it refused to hand over easy answers. With the ambitious home-invasion horror chiller Us, Peele goes even deeper into the conflicted territory of class and race and privilege; he also ponders the traits that make us most human. But this time, he’s got so many ideas he can barely corral them, let alone connect them. He overthinks himself into a corner, and we’re stuck there with him.
Lupita Nyong’o stars as Adelaide, who has overcome a traumatic childhood experience and now has a family of her own, including husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two kids: graceful, well-adjusted Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and the slightly more awkward Jason (Evan Alex), who wears a wolfman mask pushed up on his head as a kind of security blanket. We meet the comfortably middle-class Wilson family as they’re heading off on vacation to Santa Cruz, the site of Adelaide’s childhood ordeal. On their first night away, they look out and see a family of four, mute and stony echoes of themselves, standing in the driveway. From there, Peele unspools a story of “shadow” people, long forced to live underground but now streaming to the Earth’s surface to claim, violently, what they feel is rightfully theirs.
The effectiveness of Us may depend on how little you know about it going in, so the spoiler-averse may wish to stop reading here. But it’s impossible to address any of the movie’s larger ideas without giving away key plot points: Before long, that shadow family has infiltrated the house, and now that we can get a good look, we see that each of them is a not-quite-right replica of a Wilson, dressed in a red jumpsuit and wielding a pair of menacing-looking shears. At one point a terrified Adelaide asks the other mother, a twin of herself but with vacant, crazy eyes and a demented smile, “What are you people?” “We are Americans,” the lookalike responds, in a whispery growl.
That’s a bright, neon-lit Author’s Message if ever there was one, though the idea of using a group of sunlight-deprived semi-zombies as a metaphorical element in a parable about class complacency isn’t necessarily a bad one. Are you and your family doing great? Do you live in a nice place, drive an expensive car, and have plenty of food for everyone to eat? Be grateful for it. But be aware that there are others who, through no fault of their own, don’t live at the same comfort level—or are, in fact, barely surviving. (The Wilsons also have close friends, Josh and Kitty, played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss, who have more money and nicer stuff than they do, a source of irritation for Gabe in particular, and another of the movie’s threads about class consciousness in America.) But Peele doesn’t always lay out his ideas clearly. Us isn’t always fun to watch; there are stretches where it’s plodding and dour. He’s overly fond of heavy-duty references, including Biblical ones: A creepy dude holds a sign that reads Jeremiah 11:11. (If you don’t know it outright, it’s the one that goes, “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”) The mood of Us is sometimes chilling, but even then, you’re not always sure what, exactly, is chilling you. Maybe it’s just the feeling of being trapped in an over-air-conditioned lecture hall, because there’s a strain of preachiness running through the whole thing.
One thing that’s unquestionable: Peele is a dazzling visual stylist. (Peele’s cinematographer is Mike Gioulakis, who also shot David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, as well as M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Glass.) The movie’s opening, which details young Adelaide’s nightmare—it takes place in a ghoulish hall of mirrors on the Santa Cruz boardwalk—is a mini-horror masterpiece by itself, an evocation of the outright weirdness of childhood rather than its wonder: As the girl wanders away from her parents, in an almost trancelike state, she clutches a candied apple so shiny it’s like blood-red crystal ball—and puts us in a trance, too.
Yet the rest of Us is laden with metaphors, and they pile up so quickly that not even Peele can keep up with them. The movie repeatedly references Hands Across America, a 1986 benefit event in which some 6.5 million people joined hands along a route mapped out across the contiguous United States. (Many participants had donated $10 to reserve a space in the chain; the money was donated to local charities dedicated to fighting hunger and ending poverty.) In Us, the shadow people form a similar chain. But it’s hard to know what Peele is trying to say with that image. Are the semi-zombies of Us just less fortunate versions of us? Are they actually us and we don’t know it? Is their clumsy anger somehow superior to thought and reason? After all, it has unified them, while we aboveground humans are more divided than ever.
How, in the end, are we supposed to feel about these shadow people, for so long deprived of basic human rights—including daylight—that they have become murderous clones? Sometimes great movies are ambiguous, but ambiguity resulting from unclear thinking makes nothing great. It’s one thing for a movie to humble you by leaving you unsure about yourself and your place in the world; it’s another for it to leave you wondering what, exactly, a filmmaker is trying to use his formidable verbal and visual vocabulary to say.