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Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele
 102 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Sebastian Lelio
Starring: Julianne Moore, John Turturro    

Since the death of Alfred Hitchcock, several directors have vied for the unofficial title of the “next great horror director” (of course, Hitchcock only directed two real horror films his entire life). But while the likes of John Carpenter, George Romero, and Wes Craven have been bestowed that honor at various times, they all had in common a lengthy apprenticeship in low budget, low mainstream publicity films receiving little critical attention at the time. Now, however, a new “Greatest Horror Director” has rocketed to the top and has even snared a screenwriting Oscar for his efforts. After only two films, Jordan Peele has now equaled or surpassed the trinity mentioned above, and his latest, Us, is one of the best suspense films in a long time.


Unlike most of what passes for horror nowadays, Peele does not rely on gore and jump scares to elicit shudders from his audience. Instead, both in Us and his previous effort Get Out, he gets under the audiences’ skin by appealing to one of their most basic fears, that of losing one’s identity. This fear has been exploited successfully in some of the most classic horror films of all time, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (either of the first two versions) or The Stepford Wives (the first version). In Get Out, people were being possessed or taken over, by whom or what was not made clear until the end of the film. Now, in Us, Peele has upped the ante, with his characters confronting what appear to be duplicates of themselves, albeit possessed with deadly intentions towards the main characters.


The main characters in Us are the Wilson family, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). As a child, Adelaide had a frightening experience at a beachfront amusement park in Santa Cruz, CA, when she wandered into a hall of mirrors fun house and confronted what appeared to be an exact duplicate of herself. Although she had largely blocked out the memory of the experience, when she returns to the same location years later with her family on a vacation, she is naturally apprehensive.


When Adelaide relays her concerns to Gabe, he downplays them, although by now the audience is well aware that there is something strange going on. While at the beach, Jason wanders off and encounters a strange man whose hands are bleeding standing in front of the same hall of mirrors (although now graced with a new name and motif) where Adelaide had her scare as a child. That night, however, the family return to their vacation home and learn that Adelaide’s fears are extremely well-founded. They see another family who look almost exactly like them standing in their driveway. The family members (played by the same actors) have some additional scarring, wear the red jumpsuits Jason saw earlier, and all carry very large pairs of scissors. And, once the Wilsons become aware of them, the intruders move very quickly and efficiently to enter the Wilson house and try to subdue the Wilsons.


Writer/director Peele spends about 30 minutes of this two-hour movie setting the stage for the horrifying events to come. This opening sequence in Us isn’t the type of time wasting emptiness often seen in bad horror movies. Instead, almost every scene and nearly every shot has a purpose, first, to establish the normalcy of the Wilson family and the difficulty they have in accepting Adelaide’s concerns and, second, to foreshadow what is going to happen with a number of bits of business almost all of which result in payoffs later in the movie. Peele also injects a good bit of humor into the film, an element that also appears during the more intense moments as well.


Once the Wilsons encounter their doppelgangers, however, Us turns into nearly nonstop action and suspense. The doppelgangers do not speak, except for Adelaide’s double, who calls herself Red and talks with a scratchy, hoarse voice. The others just utter various grunts, but all of them have murderous intent, putting the scissors to good use. The action soon spills over from the Wilson house to that of their neighbors, the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), who find themselves utterly unprepared for what hits them.


I’ve seen movies that have lengthy action sequences, but, as a general rule, they either become very repetitive or run out of energy partway through. In Us, however, Jordan Peele maintains suspense by continually changing the dynamic of the film. The action moves from one locale to another, but it does so in a logical, coherent manner, not just an assembly of random fright moments. And, throughout it all, the basic fear is that of people who are like the main characters but not like them: somewhat grotesque, but also stronger, faster, and seemingly tougher. The movie has various fights, attacks, and gory killings, but Peele is in command of the film, keeping the suspense relentless.


Peele never loses track of the humorous elements in Us, however, even though much of the humor is quite dark. One of the best touches occurs when the doppelgangers are stalking the Tylers, who have their stereo system playing the most incongruous Beach Boys tune, “Good Vibrations.” Then when the bloodshed begins, an attempt to call the police is misheard by their Alexa-like device, resulting in the music being played changing to NWA’s “F*** tha Police.”


Despite the many things, Jordan Peele does right, he stumbles badly towards the end. For most of the movie, the script (and Red’s comments to Adelaide) are deliberately vague as to just who or what the doppelgangers are. I’ve got no problem with that; horror film, especially supernatural ones, require a certain suspension of disbelief. But then, towards the end of Us, Peele offers the audience an explanation. And, to put it charitably, the explanation is idiotic. It’s the type of explanation that is completely implausible, both in real life and in the fictional world Peele has so carefully set up, and, to make matters worse, keeps calling attention to itself as the last half hour of the movie unfolds. That lessens the impact of what could otherwise have been an exhilarating finale; simply put, I couldn’t concentrate on the on-screen action because I kept thinking about how ridiculous the entire scenario that Peele created was.


Despite Peele’s major blunder, Us is one of the best horror films in quite a while. Peele creates the right atmosphere and maintains the suspense. He gets considerable support from his cast, especially Lupita Nyong’o in a dual role with completely different voices, facial expressions and speech patterns. I’ve heard some mention of an Oscar nomination for Nyong’o for the role (or, more precisely, roles), and it’s not outside the realm of possibility, especially if this is a weak year for lead actress roles. Most importantly, in an era in which gore, sex, and jump cuts increasingly define horror, Jordan Peele again demonstrates that skillful directing and editing and a solid script matter more in creating a truly quality product. In 2019, we have met the horror movie, and it is Us.

In this clip, Lupita Nyong'o tries to explain her fear to Winston Duke.

Read other reviews of Us: 

Us (2019) on IMDb