Writer/director Jordan Peele follows up his breakout debut Get Out with Us, another visceral and confident work of horror with plenty of well-executed scares and laughs.
While Get Out seemed to exist in a genre that it carefully carved out for itself, Peele’s latest effort is more of a conventional tale of modern horror that isn’t as clear-minded about its social commentary but is directed with such a high level of craft that it almost doesn’t matter. It’s packed with shocks and twists that are meant to keep the audience guessing and even if the answers don’t quite live up to the questions, the ride is well worth taking.
The premise centers around Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), who are vacationing at their Santa Cruz beach house with their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Upon their first day of the trip, they meet with family friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker) on the beach when Jason has a disturbing encounter with a stranger. Things only get more troubling that evening when the Wilsons are visited by a group of four costumed figures who seek to break into their home and turn their idyllic vacation into an unshakable nightmare.
From there, Us takes its lead from home invasion thrillers like Funny Games and You’re Next by constantly ratcheting up the pressure on the characters whose sense of security deteriorates quickly. Before the inevitable break-in, Peele sneaks in eerie signs of chance and coincidence (e.g. a baseball score of 11-11 in the 11th inning is announced on a TV) which point to larger supernatural forces that may be at play. Whether it’s through these instances of foreshadowing or the subsequent moments of sheer terror, he demonstrates a mastery of the horror genre that is markedly assured for someone who worked in comedy for so many years.
What’s especially invigorating about Peele’s first two directorial efforts is how well he is able to build up tension slowly in the more terrifying moments but then release that tension brilliantly with perfectly placed humor. Not only do the moments of levity feel organic to the situation that the characters find themselves in, they also feel characteristic of Peele’s specific sensibilities as a comedy writer. The scene in which Gabe initially threatens the villainous interlopers could have played out in a more conventionally tense way, but instead, Duke’s sense of exaggerated bravado leads to some unexpected laughs.
Assembling the larger thematic puzzle pieces, from an opening prologue that addresses abandoned nationwide tunnels to a recurring Old Testament verse, is unfortunately not as satisfying as the creepy chills on the film’s surface. Even murkier still is the explanation behind the origin of the antagonists and the mythology behind their motives, all of which produces lingering follow-up questions rather provide adequate closure.
Still, Us is another crowd-pleasing winner from a burgeoning director who is continuing to establish a brand of horror that is unquestionably bold and refreshing.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Dumbo, starring Colin Farrell and Michael Keaton, retells the 1941 Disney animated classic about an elephant with oversized ears who wows circus-goers with his aerial abilities.
The Beach Bum, starring Matthew McConaughey and Isla Fisher, tells the story of a rebellious vagrant and the colorful cast of characters that surround him as he attempts to write a novel.
Unplanned, starring Ashley Bratcher and Brooks Ryan, is an adaptation of the memoir by anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson from God’s Not Dead writers Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon.
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