Jordan Peele’s “Us” attempts the impossible job of following the sensation that was “Get Out.”
“Get Out” simply might have been a clever, low-budget horror film. But with a timely theme related to race relations, it pleased critics, scholars, sociologists and Oscar voters. It was a brilliantly made movie of its moment.
Also a horror film, “Us” opens with confidence. It’s as if Peele hit a grand slam his first time at bat and is strolling to home plate a few innings later.
In a flashback in 1986 Santa Cruz, little Adelaide enjoys the beach boardwalk with her parents. Her dad wins her an oversized Michael Jackson “Thriller” T-shirt, and she wanders off to a house of mirrors. In the darkness, she sees a reflection of herself. Except it’s not a reflection.
In the present, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, in a mind-blowing performance) is happily married to goofball Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), with a phone-obsessed teen daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and a young son, Jason (Evan Alex), who loves monsters and magic tricks.
The Wilsons go on vacation to their summer house; Peele sets up the family dynamic with relaxed, yet precise, strokes. Gabe suggests they go to the beach at Santa Cruz, and Adelaide freezes. She can’t go back there. Gabe presses, and she reluctantly agrees, but only if they can leave before dark.
Hanging out with friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), the day goes well, except when Jason disappears for a panic-inducing moment and the presence of a weird man holding a sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11.”
At home, just before bedtime, a strange family suddenly appears standing in their driveway. As they get closer, it seems they’re exact doubles of the Wilsons, except not quite right. Something is off about them. And they don’t seem to be friendly.
What follows is a long, exhausting and somewhat bloody night, and then something close to insanity.
“Us” is completely bonkers, so much so that its intricate back story could be interpreted in many ways.
Through it all, Peele’s filmmaking is extraordinarily measured. Miles from the amateur school that requires camera-shaking every time anything tense happens, Peele understands, like Alfred Hitchcock in “The Birds,” Roman Polanski in “Rosemary’s Baby” or Stanley Kubrick of “The Shining,” the difference between hiding and revealing.
He’s also razor-focused on sounds, whether it’s a well-placed pop song at just the right volume or a spooky instrumental that perfectly ties in a theme.
Coming from the comic team of Key and Peele (on the big screen in the delightful “Keanu,” his feature screenwriting debut), Peele understands the primal, bodily reactions of laughter and fright.
He cleverly sprinkles comedy throughout to slice through the suspense. In “Get Out,” the humor was provided by side character Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), but in “Us,” anyone can get a laugh.
Yet the most remarkable thing about “Us” is that it’s about an interesting, average family that happens to be African-American, and not, like “Get Out,” a satire about racism. It’s a welcome step forward, revolutionary in its own quiet way.
Some may compare “Us” to “Get Out” and find it wanting, but others will realize no measuring is necessary. “Us” is very simply a tense, startling, and wildly entertaining, movie.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Elisabeth Moss, Winston Duke, Tim Heidecker
Written and directed by: Jordan Peele
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes