In “Get Out,” Peele created a creepy, eerily effective reality-adjacent world in which racial animus and envy played out against “Stepford”-like perfection. In “Us,” the setting is a more recognizable present-day America, in which a happy, well-adjusted family is thrust into existential battle with mysterious, suddenly ubiquitous forces. Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke play Adelaide and Gabe Wilson, who with their kids Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex) plan to spend a week or two at the family beach house in Santa Cruz, Calif. Gabe and the kids are excited — he just bought a boat and they can’t wait to hit the beach — but Addie is bothered by a creeping sense of unease she can’t shake, even when they meet up with their friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker, Elisabeth Moss). Usually a luminous, delicate presence on-screen, Nyong’o here is hooded and wary, her jumpy movements and mistrustful glances darting out from under a curtain of twisted ringlets in her hair. Her entire physicality is one of worry and foreboding, an air of impending doom that is telegraphed by a man carrying a “Jeremiah 11:11” sign in the film’s disquieting prologue.
Thanks to that opening sequence, a flashback to a traumatic event in Addie’s youth, viewers have a dim sense of what’s bugging her. But it isn’t until four strangers invade the Wilsons’ cozy getaway that the truth is revealed. Taking a page from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” here and the current “Purge” franchise there, Peele creates a tense, terror-filled domestic drama that becomes more brutal and bone-shattering as its life-and-death story unravels. As in “Get Out,” he proves as adept with goofy jokes as in stoking fear. In “Us,” however, the balance is far more in favor of blood and gore, with the humor showing up as brief, albeit sharply effective, trace elements.
All by way of saying that the audience’s enjoyment of “Us” is far more dependent on their love of scary movies than on pointed satire, which “Get Out” blended with such elegant finesse. Peele still wants to work out serious ideas in this movie — about inequality, materialism, envy and disenfranchisement — but they’re far more bluntly expressed. Both simplistic and overcomplicated, “Us” depends on some of horror’s most hackneyed cliches and gaps in logic — by now, shouldn’t all movie characters know never to go back into the house and to always stay together? — as well as a few windy speeches explaining why bizarre things keep happening. The viewer begins to wish that Peele had given his script one more pass, either to pare it down or beef it up.
As it stands, “Us” turns out to be an uneven, if intriguing, affair, one that engages a current pop culture interest in doubles (“Orphan Black,” “Counterpart”) and parallel universes (“Westworld”). Peele loads his movie with recurring motifs, not only in the form of that biblical quote, but also spiders and rabbits (so many rabbits). The symbolism is far from the most interesting thing about the film, though, and it ultimately collapses under the metaphorical weight.
Much more compelling are the performances, which are consistently excellent throughout “Us,” from Duke’s bearish sweetness to Moss and Heidecker’s hammily enjoyable turn as a bickering couple from hell. One of the film’s chief weaknesses is that there isn’t more interaction between the two couples. But it’s Nyong’o who is most memorable and astonishing in “Us,” delivering a strange, mannered performance whose weirdest details become clearly motivated once Addie’s complicated history comes to light. Watchful one moment, monstrous the next, Nyong’o is a force of nature throughout a film that suggests the doppel-apocalypse is right under our collective nose. Full disclosure: “Us” gave me real-life nightmares, a testament to Peele’s ability to illuminate the deepest and most dangerous shadow material of the American Dream.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, terror and crude language. 116 minutes.