Most of the time, what keeps us from completely losing our minds in scary movies is the pure Otherness of evil. All that dead-eyed inscrutability radiating from the deranged beast or bogeyman or swamp thing on screen actually offers a weird sort of comfort: We are not these swamp things! We are good normal people, just working and living and drinking our complicated coffee beverages.
What’s so terrifying in Jordan Peele’s new meta-horror opus, though, is us — or at least some ghoulish version of ourselves, xeroxed and refracted through a (sometimes literal) fun-house mirror. The call isn’t just coming from inside the house; it’s standing in the driveway, eerily silent and unmoving, hands linked together like malevolent paper dolls. And it looks exactly like the Wilsons — Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph) — only very, very wrong.
Even before a blustering Gabe goes to grab his baseball bat and confront these interlopers, we have some sense of what’s coming. Because the stage has been set in the opening scenes: little pigtailed Adelaide circa 1986, wandering away from her parents on a California boardwalk and into one of those derelict carnival attractions that practically screams supernatural hellmouth.
That’s where she stumbles into a dizzying hall of mirrors, one reflecting an image of her that seems to be moving…independently. She escapes somehow, though the experience renders her traumatized and nearly mute. And when she returns years later to the same sleepy beach town with her husband and kids, it doesn’t take long for her grown-woman serenity to start slipping.
It’s better not to say much more about the reckoning to come, except maybe to mention that the doppelgängers are fantastically sinister, just off enough to be truly unsettling. And that Nyong’o’s extraordinary performance(s) almost single-handedly — or double-handedly, really — makes the movie. (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are great, too, as the Wilsons’ rich miserable neighbors.)
Fans of Get Out, Peele’s brilliant, mind-bending 2017 debut, may feel vaguely let down that his follow-up is, for all of its sly humor and high style, a fairly straightforward genre piece, and that its bigger ideas and metaphors don’t feel quite fully baked. But to put that mantle on him for every film — reshaper of the zeitgeist, heady arbiter of race and class and cool — also seems unfair. Go see Us on its own terms: two hours of blood-spraying, body-snatching multiplex fun. B+