Be afraid of what peers back in that mirror. Over thirty years ago in Santa Cruz, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) experienced a traumatic event that she’s never quite been able to shake completely. It took place in a funhouse at the beach, which explains why Adelaide is less than enthused in returning to close some loose ends during a family vacation (a close family member recently passed away) with husband Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex).
Of course, her bad vibes quickly manifest into real horrors, starting with the close-call of Jason almost going missing, to crystal-clear references to her life-changing situation as a youngster. All of it culminates with a family of four appearing out of nowhere on the Wilsons’ front porch. The kicker? As Jason says, “They’re Us,” resembling the family in looks but not personality. These Wilson’s are aggressively aboriginal, arising from the depths of the unknown to—in Red’s words—take back what is theirs.
In the Bible, the Book of Jeremiah is largely about the deliverance of judgement to a nation of people whom God deemed to be too far gone. In Jeremiah 11:11, God launches what amounts to a prophetic warning, stating that a great, inescapable disaster is coming upon Judah in punishment for the immoral, evil lives the denizens lived. That verse shows up a few times in Us, writer/producer/director Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort to the groundbreaking Get Out, and it kind of hits strongly at its main theme. Whether we admit it or not, some level of darkness exists in all of us, and not coming to grips with this is detrimental to one’s well-being. One way or another, either we become self-aware enough to tackle and live with it, or someone or something else will that may be as malevolent as the part of us we try to suppress, if not more so. Thematically, there’s a lot to sum up and take away in his latest movie, a little of it unfocused and/or not as acutely sharp as the director may believe. But most of it is extremely compelling, delivered with skill and flair.
What is sharp? Peele’s directorial skill. Two films in, one cannot say the former Key and Peele co-star doesn’t have the ability to quarterback a film with extraordinary precision. In his debut, he gave us some of the more unforgettable moments of not only this decade, but likely all-time as Get Out ages. With the help of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, he hasn’t stagnated, instead mixing up a myriad of camera angles and shots (one particular scene’s choreography in the final act and how dialogue is shown within stands as five-to-ten minutes of beautiful balletic brutality) to tell the story. Few if any shots are wasted; chances are if Peele focuses on something, it almost certainly will come up later. Music of both the licensed and original score variety composed by returnee Michael Abels amplifies humor and horror when necessary.
Two films deep, Peele has also shown the difficult ability to juggle two—even three in this case—genres in horror and comedy. A common complaint of his preceding movie was that it was bereft of pure frights, scary more for its very real political and racial commentary than actual bone-chilling unease. To call Us “bone-chilling” would be incorrect; while Peele’s laughs do not kill the atmosphere with frequency (many of them come after a prolonged sequence of horror, not so much during it) the seriousness of the situation can be undercut at times with a joke. Overall, it is a noticeable step up in scares.
Us combines the aforementioned genres with science-fiction, think The Strangers mixed with Resident Evil/Gears of War, and The Twilight Zone, a series that Peele is relaunching in mere weeks. Gathering inspiration from other works and putting his spin on them makes Us rather original. To spoil nothing (hopefully), the ending will be the source of deep discussion, for both what it implies as well as how it really doesn’t address what it introduces. Open to interpretation? That’s great. A sense of “WTF, you’re going to leave that there with no closure?” Head-scratching.
Impressive direction undoubtedly goes a long way. However, just like Get Out, and to an extent, Hereditary, Us wouldn’t be the same without supreme performances. The wrong kind of performance honestly could have slid this movie into the Scary Movie zone. Duke appears primed for a breakout over the next year or two; he’s the purest form of comic relief here while also conveying fear where appropriate. Joseph and Alex prove to be strong, too, never serving as weak links or annoying characters as these flicks sometimes do in painting adolescents and youngsters. With that said, it is Nyong’o who absolutely blows it out of the park. It’s possible that her turn here is the best work of her young and still evolving career, which obviously includes a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, if only because there’s so many facets she’s required to tap into. At the very least, Nyong’o checks all of the boxes to be an A-list actress who’s deserving of many more lead roles, and it is rather surprising that it took five years after her win to receive an initial one.
Though one or two ideas are left in hand interlocked with no true explanation, few can manage to captivate like Peele can, with meticulous direction, wonderful casting, and supreme genre melding. Two films deep, “Directed by Jordan Peele” means event viewing.
Photo credits go to IMDB.com, Forbes.com, and nordic.businessinsider.com.
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