Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was a glorious lightning bolt of a movie — it had plenty of influences, but resembled nothing else. By combining horror and comedy, Peele stirred up provocative ideas about race in America, and he made you laugh while he was doing it.
Tough act to follow. Maybe it’s inevitable that Peele’s second film as writer-director doesn’t light up the sky in the same way — but at least it throws off plenty of sparks.
“Us” begins with a sinister prologue that confirms Peele’s grasp of how pacing and camera angles can build dread. We follow a little girl who gets lost one night at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, circa 1986.
Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o plays the adult version of that girl, fatefully returning to Santa Cruz when her big goof of a husband (Winston Duke, from “Black Panther”) insists they visit. Their children, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, reluctantly tag along.
Our heroine keeps experiencing disturbing flashbacks. One terrific sequence, at the Santa Cruz beach, is like an audio-visual panic attack.
The plot turns when four weirdos, clad in red jumpsuits, arrive at the family vacation home. What happens next is a well-orchestrated creepfest, in which Peele proves that inappropriate smiling and jerky body movements are scarier than people jumping out from behind doors. Although there’s some of that, too.
What doesn’t gel is the way all this practically demands to be interpreted as something larger than a horror movie. Peele wants us to connect the dots between various clues, from an underground system of tunnels where an alternate universe might exist to a weird focus on the 1986 “Hands Across America” event.
At one point the intruding weirdos, who look exactly like the family members, identify themselves simply as “Americans.” There are real possibilities in a horror movie that proposes an invasion by cruel, insane doppelgangers; this would explain a lot about American culture in recent years, for instance. But “Us” doesn’t run with the idea.
Some of this is fun, but “Us” gets very weighty about its teases, where “Get Out” stayed swift and cheeky. Peele knows all the tricks, but here most of them just feel like tricks.
The cast, which includes Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as friends of the family, is strong. The film is energized by Nyong’o’s performance, which propels the action in much the same way Toni Collette’s performance did in “Hereditary,” another horror mind-bender.
Horror movies can and should be ambitious, as “Get Out” proved. But in this case, you might be better off lowering your expectations and just rolling with the scares — otherwise, expect a lot of head-scratching.
“Us” (3 stars)
“Get Out” director Jordan Peele returns with this genuinely creepy (but also frequently baffling) tale of a family terrorized by their exact doubles. The movie feels weighty about its mysterious metaphors, but if you just roll with the scares it’s effective — and Lupita Nyong’o gives a propulsive performance.
Rating: R, for violence, language