Review: 'Us'

'Get Out' director Jordan Peele has a screaming good time at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in his newest film

Break out your decoder rings; the flawed but intriguing Us's political subtleness is hidden by its straightforward terror. Among other things, Jordan Peele's follow up to Get Out breaks a long drought. Santa Cruz, with its deep cold bay and hoodooed mountains, ought to be California's Transylvania. Instead, it's remembered for The Lost Boys, which is just The Goonies wearing plastic vampire fangs. There hasn't been a good movie made there since Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988). Now the curse is lifted, even if much of Us is shot in a lake in the San Bernardino Mountains.

There's a strange ride at the Beach Boardwalk that most visitors fail to notice. In 1986, young Adelaide slips away from her family and wanders into "The Shaman's Cave". Passing an old derelict holding up a cardboard sign with a particularly vicious Bible verse ("Jeremiah 11:11"), she enters. An electric owl calls her name. Amid the hall of mirrors, and the painted images of redwoods, her identical double awaits.

Somehow she survived. In our present, she (Lupita Nyong'o) is a calm, pretty mom married to a living dad-joke, Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke, of Black Panther). Two kids: one a monkey mask-loving naughty little boy Jason (Evan Alex), the elder, a disdainful daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). They are as tight as the quartet of stick figures on the back window of their SUV.

Sitcom horseplay lulls us, while the Gregorian Chant-like chorales of Michael Abels soundtrack keep us alert. There is a slight bit of friction when these four vacationers visit their friends at the beach--the big drinkers KItty (Elisabeth Moss) and Tim (Josh Tyler). The elder Wilsons have a friendship with them that's more cordial than warm.

The "Shaman's Cave" is still on the beach 30 years later, with a new paint job. It's Arthurian insead of Native American, now. The doorway beckons young Jason (Evan Alex).

That night, as the Wilsons go to bed, the power goes off. Standing in the driveway are four figures in red jumpsuits, smiling maliciously, armed with long sharp scissors. Each wears a driving glove on one hand, Michael Jackson-wise, perhaps to keep the blood from making their weapons slip. Jason's monkeyish double is crouched on all fours. On his face is what the burn-ward doctors call a "TFO mask"--so you'll know what to ask for next Halloween. At some cost, the family gives their captors the slip. But they're not the only ones being visited tonight.

Home invasion terror isn't always elegant, but it's always effective. Peele is a genial shocker. Unlike most doorbusters, these hell creatures aren't interested in sex. Comic relief settles in between never-too-horrible mayhem. Before the attack, Gabe lounges in plaid shorts, waiting for his wife in what he hopes is an alluring position. It's funny and tragic, too when Gabe gives a demonstration of what Dave Chappelle mocked as 'keeping it real'--the cuddly man tries to act badass to scare off the intruders.

We get answers: we learn the the meaning of what we saw in the titles, a dim classroom above a towering panopticon of rabbit cages. But let's avoid spoilage. Zombies are quite frightening--not so much the commonplace brain-gobblers, but the original Caribbean type. Take the dead/alive slaves grinding sugar cane under Bela Lugosi's spell in White Zombie (1932), wretches who could have illustrated Baudelaire's poem about the skeleton laborer. Daughter Zora's likely namesake, the writer Zora Neale Hurston, wrote a book about these Haitian wraiths, Tell My Horse.

Us's suggestiveness is in the title, which could be misread as "U.S."; the red jumpsuits (MDGA: Make Doppelgangers Great Again) provide the easiest exit from this rabbit hole. But there's trickier material in the questions of who bound these monsters. What will be the fate of a society divided up between "influencers" and the influenced?

One last twist and Us's fabric comes apart--inevitable, but it fulfilled the horror movie tradition, that last chill. Deeper analysis of Us will be deserved. Wonder what Frantz Fanon would have made of it. In the meantime, there are rich if not completely unanticipated shocks. Nyong'o is constantly startling with her display of terror and maternal wrath. As seen on Us's sensational poster, Nyong'o is a master of the goggling horror-face, a look supposedly is described in the theater world as 'the skull.'

R; 116 min.

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