The first thing that flashes on-screen in Us, the latest from Get Out writer/director/producer Jordan Peele, is a creepy little tidbit of information: There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the United States with “no known purpose at all.” The anxiety that line triggers—that anything could be happening right under our feet—courses throughout Us.
Us is a movie about doppelgängers—our evil twins that, according to folklore, must be killed, lest they kill us and assume our identities. But Us is also about shadows emerging from their own darkness; the illusory depths of mirrors; the fear we project onto the “other” instead of examining our own brutality; and, more abstractly, the barbaric history of slavery and mass genocide that America has unsuccessfully tried to bury, how the country is actively destroying itself, and what it’ll look like when its chickens finally come home to roost.
Playground superstitions—like the significance of watching the clock strike 11:11—intersect with apocalyptic omens, like the Bible passage Jeremiah 11:11 (“Therefore thus saith the Lord, ‘Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them’”). Us is the ultimate anxiety nightmare, where coincidences aren’t just coincidences, and you can’t even trust your own reflection, the ground beneath your feet, or your faith that a higher power will protect you from evil.
The unfortunate recipients of all this horror are the Wilsons—Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, who deserves a billion awards), Gabe (Winston Duke), and kids Zora (Shahadi Wright) and the perpetually masked Jason (Evan Alex)—who are just trying to enjoy a nice summer vacation in the warm California sun. But witnessing them drive to the coast inspires the same dread of seeing the Torrances’ yellow bug creeping up the mountains toward the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or the teens partying on the beach at the beginning of Jaws.
Early on, we learn that ground zero for the film’s terror—the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which vampires used as a killing field in The Lost Boys—is also the site of a major childhood trauma for Adelaide. More fuel for the anxiety nightmare: The hunch that perhaps your past traumas are not dead, and will keep reanimating like hungry zombies, threatening to devour you for the rest of your life.
As a horror exercise peppered with moments of comic relief (like when an attempt to call the cops instead cues the speakers to blast N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”) and images that prove surprisingly unnerving (like Elizabeth Moss applying lip gloss), Us is an exceedingly great slasher movie.
But there's a lot going on here, and Us suffers for it: Some of its most critical themes feel half-baked, and even by its conclusion, it’s unclear how Alice in Wonderland–esque lab rabbits, the doppelgängers’ red jumpsuits and golden scissors, a potential government conspiracy, and the 1986 event Hands Across America—when 6.5 million people formed a human chain across the United States to fight hunger, homelessness, and poverty—are all related.
Maybe Us is overstuffed, or maybe a second viewing could cast further light on these connections. Either way, Us still made me afraid to look in the mirror—the hallmark of an excellent horror movie.