(2019) *** 1/2 R
116 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Jordan Peele. Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker.

/content/films/5152/1.jpgIn what will surely be the single most commonly cited moment of Us—Jordan Peele’s follow-up to the smash success Get Out—a dumbfounded American dad demands of psychopathic home invaders, “What are you people?” The answer? “We’re Americans.” It’s a punchline and a promise, of scary but satirical social commentary a la Get Out.

In its bluntness, the line may also be taken by some as an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment for Peele, since Us isn’t quite built to sustain that kind of thematic weight. In interviews, Peele and others have tried to manage expectations by framing the movie as more of a straight-ahead horror movie than Get Out, which is accurate. But a big part of what makes Peele an ongoingly welcome genre director is his ambition (like, say, George Romero or David Cronenberg) to make a pop horror film that also sparks reflection on our existence and our society.

Even that title, Us, invites a reading as a comment on the U.S., although it primarily marks the film as a nightmare in which doppelgängers claim the real estate of terrified minds. In a dynamic performance already generating Oscar buzz, Lupita Nyong'o stars as Adelaide Wilson, a woman who only very reluctantly accompanies her family on a vacation to Santa Cruz, California. Her apprehension stems from an trauma in her youth, when she unaccountably encountered her own doppelgänger in a hall of mirrors at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. (This initial 1986-set sequence also allows Peele to geek out on a few ’80s references, including a nod to the Santa Cruz-set The Lost Boys.)

Adelaide’s fears prove founded when she, her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) find themselves staring down their evil twins. These are “the Tethered,” a doppelgänger conception so deeply unnerving it could conceivably launch a whole new craze in horror, as Night of the Living Dead ultimately did for zombies. Driven mad by exclusion and isolation, these shadow selves range from enraged to downright feral homicidal mania, and all they want is American life itself. Their deep-red jumpsuits and sandals say doomsday cult, but their shears say murderous home invaders.

The latter point explains why Us largely plays as a more stylish, sci-fi-tinged take on The Purge franchise, which inhabits similar thematic ground. Both play upon Americans’ guilt for their largely lucked-into plenty, and anxiety that we’re a class revolt away from having it all violently ripped from us. Capitalism means a dog-eat-dog world: for us to thrive, others must suffer, and but for the sheer randomness of the universe, it could be “us” on the other side of the looking glass.

It’s precisely because Peele is taking on ideas this heady that Us manages to be almost equal parts thrillingly provocative and somehow a bit of a letdown. When Us finally gets semi-literal about what’s going on, the rushed exposition begs more questions than answers, and let’s face it, explanations work against the primal nightmare that makes Us horror to begin with. Peele’s messy stew of allusive ingredients and jokey allusions (shamans and wizards, white rabbits, Beach Boys vs. N.W.A.) can taste overwhelming, but it gives us a helluva lot more to chew on than a Halloween reboot.

Some will find Us’s creepouts and flourishes of psycho-killer insanity a bit self-conscious or overworked, but Nyong'o’s impressive dual performance goes a long way to making the scares work from both sides of the equation: scream queen and relentless monster. When Us reckons with who created that monster, it adds one more twist (of the shears) to Peele’s latest scary-funny-provocative trip into an American twilight zone. If “We’re Americans” leaps out as the obvious takeaway line, it’s the less obvious one that should resonate: when Zora drily complains, “I forgot: nobody cares about the end of the world.”

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