“US” — 3 stars — Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry; R (for violence/terror and language); in general release; running time: 116 min
SALT LAKE CITY — “Us” is not for the squeamish. But for horror fans, Jordan Peele’s humor-injected effort about a nightmare of a family getaway should be a thrilling experience.
The movie opens on a dark night in 1986 as a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) is enjoying an evening out in a beach-side Santa Cruz, California, amusement park with her parents. While Mom is in the bathroom and Dad is playing Whack-a-Mole, Adelaide wanders off and gets lost in a mirror maze just as the power kicks off. To her horror, she discovers a little girl in the maze who looks just like her — and isn’t a reflection.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Adelaide (now played by Lupita Nyong’o) is all grown up, married with a couple of kids of her own. She and her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), have brought the crew out to the family summer home, which just happens to be in striking distance of Santa Cruz.
At first things are pretty normal, with daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) constantly on her smartphone and brother Jason (Evan Alex) firmly in a stage of life where keeping a plastic Halloween mask propped on the top of your head is a completely normal thing. Adelaide even agrees to go back to the beach, where she and Gabe spend time with their friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker) and their two teenage girls.
But Adelaide senses something off, and as evening closes in, she finally tells Gabe about the experience in the maze she’s been hiding away since childhood. It’s at this precise moment that four mysterious figures in reddish-orange jumpsuits appear at the top of the driveway — figures who even at a distance look strikingly similar to Adelaide and her family.
To call “Us” a movie about home invasion would be to oversimplify things, and gratefully, Peele’s effort is not a Santa Cruz echo of 2008’s “The Strangers,” which felt like an exercise in sadism. “Us” proves to be much more complex and thoughtful as Adelaide and her family deal with the mysterious group of doppelgangers in jumpsuits, and we slowly understand what is apparently happening all across the continental United States.
The film works for a number of reasons. Rather than rely on jump scares and soundtrack clangs, Peele builds tension with atmosphere and subtle details, like the “evil” Jason’s tendency to run on all fours. He also paces this tension with a steady dose of humor that provides the audience with just enough relief to stick with the story but not so much that it distracts from the scares.
The strength of the storytelling is boosted that much more by the excellent performances from the cast. Each principal actor is essentially called to play two roles, and though everyone draws a terrifying contrast, Nyong’o especially shines as both Adelaide and her shadowy twin, Red.
As mentioned before, “Us” is not for the faint-hearted and features enough violence and scattered R-rated profanity to justify its rating. But where other films feel self-indulgent in putting up a parade of violent kills on the screen, Peele is much more discreet, keeping the most violent moments at a distance or off-screen. Thankfully, “Us” is more concerned with the terror of its story than the spectacle of its violence.
Audiences may have mixed reactions to the end of that story once the curtain has finally been pulled all the way back, and overall the film does feel a little long at 116 minutes. There’s also plenty of room for interpretation, and audiences will likely leave trying to decide just how to apply the invasion metaphor (history-savvy audiences may also note Peele’s decision to play a Beach Boys song against one of the film’s more violent encounters, a wry nod to Charles Manson’s failed music career).
But as a follow-up to 2017’s surprise hit “Get Out,” “Us” is an excellent production that stands above much of the routine horror efforts that dot the release calendar, and another interesting step in Peele’s evolving entertainment career.
Rating explained: “Us” is rated R for some graphic violence and terror, as well as intermittent R-rated profanity.