Nyong’o is spellbinding but the plot is ultimately baffling: Us reviewed

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

Us is a second feature from Jordan Peele after his marvellous debut Get Out, which was more brilliantly satirical than scary and may well be the best ever horror film for non-horror people (i.e. me). Us has also garnered five stars everywhere, as well as, at the time of writing, a 100 per cent rating on the aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes, so I’m out of step, I know, but I found it disappointing. The second act is essentially a zombie-style, home-invasion splatterfest that goes on and on and on. Allusions that you think will pay off don’t. It’s ultimately baffling and although I’m fine with baffling as a rule, if I’m going to sit through a zombie-style splatterfest it would have to be for a good reason.

The opening is terrific. After titles that tell us that there are many tunnels underground in America, we see a small girl wandering away from her parents at Santa Cruz’s beachfront fairground into a hall of mirrors where she appears to meet her exact double. Later flashbacks will show us that this event was so traumatic she was even mute for a period. But, for now, we spool forward in time to meet the Wilson family on the way to their Santa Cruz summer cabin. There’s the mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), and two kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex), and the connection is Adelaide, who was that little girl, and is now reluctant to return to that beach. As the cabin has been in the family ever since her parents’ time, at least, and the Wilsons holiday there annually, you do wonder why this reluctance hasn’t made itself known before, but we’ll leave that there because I know that when I point these things out it’s dreary and gets on fans’ nerves and it shouldn’t matter. (Except it does!)

They do visit the beach, after which their exact doubles spookily turn up in their driveway. They are wearing red overalls and a weird driving glove on one hand, sharp scissors clutched in the other. This is brilliantly achieved and tense. Christ, what will happen now? Something clever, I thought. Something marvellously smart, I further thought. This is Jordan Peele of Get Out.

The Wilsons are friends with a richer, white couple — played by Tim Heidecker and the fabulous Elisabeth Moss — and Gabe has even bought a boat in an attempt to keep up with them, so is this about people being after your life? As expanded to America’s haves and have-nots? Are the tunnels an underclass reference? Or a nod to the Underground Railroad, the 19th-century network of slave escape routes?

The second act is basically just one of prolonged terrorisation and constant bludgeonings with no rules. Some doubles that have been killed, for instance, come back to life and others remain dead. (This shouldn’t matter. Except it does!) I was grateful it wasn’t that frightening but not so grateful that it was quite so repetitively dull.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to admire or that it’s unwatchable. Nyong’o is spellbinding, and when, as her double, she first speaks, as if a razor were stuck in her throat, the blood does chill. And there is an amazing scene concerning Elisabeth Moss and lip gloss. Also, the soundtrack (hip-hop anthems, African rhythms) is wonderful. But nothing coheres. The moments of humour are clunkily inserted. The doubles never amount to much more than your average zombies. And allusions to the bible and rabbits (this out-rabbits even The Favourite) never add up. The ending, which reveals who is really who — that’s all I can say; too spoilery otherwise — makes less sense the more you think about it. Again, I suppose that shouldn’t matter. (Except it does!)

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