The story of Us begins in 1986, on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with a young girl, Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry), and her two parents. Dad’s a little drunk, but he does manage to win her a Thriller t-shirt and buy her a candy apple. Mom’s a little frustrated; this is probably not the first time he’s staggered around in public with herky-jerky foolishness. And, like most children, Adelaide silently watches. She doesn’t know what they are fighting about, but she knows they’re fighting. She’s seen it before, and like any child bored with their parents, wanders off. First to the beach, then to Merlin’s Hall of Mirrors, where an arrow pointing to the entrance promises she will find herself. And she does: first in reflection, then in reality.
Jump to the present and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now grown with children of her own: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Along with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke)—one of the doofiest fathers in recent memory—they are headed to their vacation home on the Monterey Bay, a bit too close to Santa Cruz than Adelaide might like. The memory of that one eerie night still haunts her. But as is common, she is told everything is fine; don’t worry about it.
Then, one night, a family of four appears in Adelaide’s driveway: a beefy father, a slight mother, a teenage daughter, and a skinny boy. They are wearing red jumpsuits, sandals, tan-colored driving gloves on their right hand, and carry large, sinister-looking pairs of scissors.
This second family forces their way inside, corner Adelaide and her brood in the living room where just a little bit of light takes the story into a very dark place: The family in the red jumpsuits looks remarkably, unmistakably, uncannily like…
“They’re us,” Jason says.
Indeed they are. But something is off. The father moves with a lumbering zombie-like quality, groaning and croaking more than talking. The son, his face hidden behind an S&M mask, crawls on all fours like a spider. The sister moves with silent, robotic qualities, and the mother speaks as if a lifetime of language catches in her throat. She tells a tale, a horrific tale of subterranean existence and righteous uprising.
The Wilsons are not the only family with red-suited doppelgangers—the title Us carries a double meaning—but they are the only family we see that has some success fighting back. The violence here is slow—maybe too slow—and favors blunt instruments over gunplay. As the fight between the Wilsons and the alternate-Wilsons drags on, the Wilsons become injured. They hobble and staggering around, screaming and grunting with primal ferocity, their white and gray clothes drenched in crimson blood until “neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellied Sneetches knew whether this one was that one, or that one was this one, or which one was what one, or what one was who.”
Coincidentally, Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches also took place on a beach. There are a lot of coincidences in Us, coincidences writer, producer, director Jordan Peele piles on like Haruki Murakami shifting into neutral. There’s a point in Us where if you squint just the right way, it starts to make sense. But then Peele dives deeper, complicating the story, explaining the mystery, and confounding the logic. There’s even a last-second twist that might undermine everything that came before.
Us might have been better if the third act was tighter, the reveal less in-depth, and the allegory less obvious. But then it wouldn’t be Us. There’s a messiness here, a beautiful anamorphic widescreen messiness that Peele seems to relish. Look closely during the opening shot of a TV playing a “Hands Across America” spot. The VHS tapes stacked against the cathode ray box include The Right Stuff and the cult horror film C.H.U.D.
Us exists between the two.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Produced by Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 116 minutes, Opens March 22, 2019