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Us

Year: 2019
Production Co: Monkeypaw Productions
Studio: Universal
Director: Jordan Peele
Producer: Jason Blum/Sean McKittrick/Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Cast: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright-Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

First the really good news. This is one of those films the cineliterate classes celebrate as being one of those movies they don't make anymore, except that almost every year we celebrate something like Us, Baby Driver or Free Fire. Us reminds us that as much as we decry the endless parade of superheroes, the diversity of storytelling in cinema – in plots and minority representation – actually looks pretty healthy.

All eyes were on Jordan Peele after Get Out not only for making a very well received horror movie, but elevating the genre to the point where it was being nominated for an Oscar. The unofficial titles the industry bestowed upon him – most exciting horror director for years, most incisive commenter on race relations, how thrillingly he combined the two – were his to lose.

Us is bigger and better than Get Out but has some flaws in equal respects. The story, a bit like the best zombie plague tales, centres on a globe-stopping event a single group of people come up against without realising they're not the only ones. We zero in on the Wilson family, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), Gabe (Winston Duke), teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and preteen son Jason (Evan Alex) the night the world changes.

After a traumatic event in her childhood that's shown in the creepy intro, Adelaide is still a skittish woman but has the love of her family, so when a group of what appear to be their physical doubles appear in the driveway of their lakeside vacation house one night, she's nervous but not yet terrified.

But terror soon descends as the four red-boilersuited figures force their way inside, reveal themselves to be exact replicas of each family member and proceed to menace and terrorise them. It sparks off a night of violence and fear which will engulf not just the Wilsons but their friends, preppy couple Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Hiedecker) and their vacuous teen daughters, and – as everyone soon realises to their horror – the whole country.

I won't reveal what's actually going on here, but it's got to do with a bizarre riff on the 80s media event Hands Across America (foreshadowed in the opening scene with the famous TV ad from the time), strange scientific experimentation and an entire other world full of sparse hallways, escalators and rabbits that joins ours in a carnival funhouse at a seaside Santa Cruz pier.

Peele, who wrote the script, reveals himself to be much more interested in visuals than narrative. There's definitely a story, and like the best work of Hitchcock it's all played/playing out prior to the movie starting, the audience left to wonder what it all means and catch up along with the Wilsons as they discover more clues.

But there are a lot of motifs and visual elements that find their way in (the red clothes, the ornate scissors so many of the doppelgangers carry in order to execute their murderous mission, the Wilsons' double standing outside in silence for long minutes before entering the house) for no reason other than how scary or visually effective they are.

When Peele does that visual construction right, however, it's a thing of rare beauty amid the endless procession of superheroes and CGI. You instantly recognise two shots in particular as being so beautiful they could be posters. The first is Adelaide as a girl, played by Madison Curry, in deep shadow in the funhouse ride after discovering something awful, mouth open and wide eyes staring straight down the lens in terror.

The second also highlights how Peele makes race an issue visually rather than socially. The morning after hell has descended as Adelaide and her family are still fleeing, she gets out of the 4WD they've been driving in all night and stands against the backdrop of the sun-bleached ocean. Nyong'o, born to Kenyan parents, has particularly dark African skin that's coated with a sparkling sheen of sweat, and the contrast of such a gorgeous hue against the brightly lit surrounds and white clothes she's wearing is stunning. In several scenes like it, Peele proves himself a master craftsman of arresting imagery.

It keeps you guessing very effectively, but so many talismans and devices pile up which the film never goes on to explain it renders the whole thing less satisfying than it could have been. You realise at a certain point you're going to have to accept them because they're just construction parts to make the proceedings scarier.

And someone really should have remembered Jupiter Ascending and Eddie Redmayne's stupid, hollow-throated villain voice before Adelaide's double (also played by Nyong'o, as all the doubles in the movie are) started to speak in her broken, clipped English.

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