“Who are you?” whispers Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) as her family of four is held hostage at their summer beach house by a family of exact doubles, clad in matching red jumpsuits and armed with extremely sharp-looking golden scissors. The hoarse reply that emerges from her doppelgänger’s throat—“We’re Americans”—is one of many enigmas that stay with you after seeing Us, the new horror movie from writer-director Jordan Peele. It’s a joke, in a way, though such a dark one that it doesn’t elicit a laugh in the moment as much as a gasp. It’s also one of the film’s few explicitly political lines, though its meaning in context remains elusive. There are meanings and metaphors all over the place in Us, but as an opening title tells us about the thousands of miles of tunnels winding under the surface of the United States, their purpose is sometimes unknown.
Us is about both the U.S. and about “us,” as Adelaide’s son Jason (Evan Alex) calls the home-invading doubles, but there’s no clear allegory to be drawn between the family’s plight and contemporary political reality. This can make for a frustrating viewing experience in the moment, a film whose moral ambiguities and incomplete catharses don’t map onto a known horror template. But the unsolved mysteries of Us are more exciting than maddening. It’s a movie you come out of on fire with questions, a movie you find yourself attempting to explain or have explained to you by total strangers before you’ve even left the theater. (I was a part of two such conversations before I reached the lobby.)
Peele’s last film, the genre-reinventing Get Out, turned familiar if still creepy horror scenarios—abduction, mind control, body theft—into proxies for racial violence: The spirit that took possession of Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris was not a cloven-footed demon but the evil of white supremacy itself. Us is less directly about racism, though it matters to the story that the Wilson family is black (and later that their friends at a neighboring beach house, an entertainingly bitchy pair of drunks played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, are white). Rather, Us is about the many other deep rifts that separate us from each other and ourselves: the divides between the rich and the poor, the well and the sick, the child self and the adult self, the loved and the unloved.
In an opening flashback to 1986, a very young Adelaide (Madison Curry) wanders away from her father on the Santa Cruz boardwalk and enters a carnival haunted house, where she encounters a terrifying double of herself—in the hall of mirrors, to be sure, but this one appears to be more than a reflection. As the adult Adelaide tells her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), she’s spent her whole life haunted by the feeling that the girl she saw that day has been trying to hunt her down. Gabe, a kindhearted doofus without an occult-leaning bone in his body, points out pragmatically that she might have brought this up before agreeing to a family vacation near the same boardwalk.
Their first day at the beach, Jason gets momentarily lost, increasing Adelaide’s anxiety and the audience’s—but is it her unresolved childhood trauma acting up, or is there an objective threat to the family’s safety? That question gets answered in short order when the red-clad doubles show up at the door.
Explication of Us’ plot should stop around that point, to maximize the thrills of this sometimes sickeningly twisty ride. But it’s worth noting that only one of the doubles, Adelaide’s—identified in the credits as “Red,” but never named in the movie—has the ability to speak. When she does, it’s in a strained, raspy croak that seems to issue from the depths of her body, an extraordinary voice that’s only one of Nyong’o’s wild inventions for the role. She’s onscreen for nearly every scene, playing both her character and that character’s polar opposite (or is it her innermost self?), and she’s not only good but sensational in a performance that lets us see the monster in the human being and the human being in the monster. As my understanding of the relationship between what Red calls the “shadows” and their everyday-world counterparts grew with new revelations in the story, so did my admiration of her performance, which is both technically dazzling and emotionally complex. If you admired her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave and wanted more of her in Black Panther, Us will sate your Lupita longings and then some.
Us belongs to Nyong’o, but it’s also a beautifully acted ensemble piece, with a long first act devoted to introducing the Wilson family in all their squabbling, middle-class glory. The children—Jason’s older sister, Zora, is played by Shahadi Wright Joseph—are far more than just vulnerable bait, as kids become in too many horror movies: They too, if in different ways than their mother, must face up to their shadow selves and learn how to destroy or outrun them. (The young actors must similarly create two starkly different physicalities for their “real” and shadow selves, a task at which they both succeed admirably.) Duke’s shambolic, dad-joke-cracking Gabe is the source of welcome comic relief in the first half, especially when he proudly shows the family his newly acquired motorboat, a secondhand rustbucket named “Crawdaddy.” But a later action sequence, in which Gabe has it out with his freaky nonverbal counterpart in the boat, is a tour de force of horror, suspense, and comedy combined, with playful references to seagoing escapes of films past (Cape Fear, Jaws).
Here’s the last thing I’ll say about Us, besides “see it”: Peele is a born filmmaker who cares where the camera is placed, how a scene is lit and scored, what the props in the corner of the image suggest. This being a story about doubles, he’s constantly playing with reflection and repetition: Almost every scene in the first half finds its callback, or twin, in the second, whether in a horrific or humorous register. And when the biggest of many twists comes near the end of the film, requiring a reconsideration of everything that came before, it displaces the movie’s moral center in a way that leaves the viewer off-balance as well. We walk out of the theater seeing the people around us a little differently. Could they be our shadow selves? Are we theirs? Or are there other shadows out there, visions of ourselves and our society we can’t or won’t let ourselves see? The best horror movies are the ones that make you leave the theater still unsure.