Jordan Peele’s “Us” is a polytonal slasher saga with more undertones, overtones, intricate themes, elusive mysteries and scary images than anyone could absorb in a single viewing. I’ve only seen it once, so all I can tell you for now is that it’s compulsory seeing for everyone who loves the horror genre, the movie medium and the notion of saying sage things about contemporary life without straying from entertainment’s twisty path.
Connoisseurs of sensational trailers already know something about the premise. A happy, affluent family on summer vacation—a mother, father, sister and brother—finds themselves confronted by their doppelgängers: another mother, father, sister and brother. The new arrivals, though, are clearly hostile, rather than happy, and just as clearly bent on home invasion.
Well-to-do whites may worry about their homes being invaded by blacks, but these incipient victims are black, and no less fearful for their lives. Maybe even more so in the case of the mother, Adelaide Wilson, who’s played brilliantly by Lupita Nyong’o. Adelaide has been afraid that something terrible would happen ever since a traumatic incident in 1986, during her childhood. That was the year of the heavily promoted Hands Across America, a benefit event the movie uses to ask—without asking—whose hands were stretching across whose America to whose benefit.
The most chilling utterance in the film comes in response to a simple question, “Who are you?” I won’t tell you who utters the halting, anguished answer, which is: “We...are...Americans.” That may be the movie’s most provocative phrase. Who, it makes us wonder, do we readily accept as our fellow countrymen these days, the outcasts as well as the privileged, or only people who look like us?
Before and after everything else, “Us” is great entertainment, a fearless mixing of serious and silly by a filmmaker who started out as a funnyman and continues to sharpen his comic chops. Jordan Peele’s debut film “Get Out” was an expression of black fear in a predominantly white world. This one expresses existential terror in a world where fear and anxiety have become color-blind, afflicting those on top of whatever heap they happen to have climbed. Top and bottom, high and low, are the core concepts. Maybe they correspond to levels of consciousness and our worst selves cohabiting with our best, or to social strata and the price paid by the poor to sustain the rich. I don’t want to speculate further about the movie’s shimmering significance, except to mention several slo-mo tableaux of exquisite strangeness, scenes set in some underground that reminded me of the two-tiered inequality of Fritz Lang’s classic “Metropolis.” I also thought of Walt Kelly’s long-ago comic-strip hero Pogo, who famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pogo would have grasped this movie instantly.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.