Jordan Peele avoids the sophomore slump in a big way with thrilling ‘Us’

On the surface, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) has it all. A goofy and loving husband in Gabe (Winston Duke), two healthy young children in Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), and a beachfront home off the boardwalk of the Atlantic. However, something from Adelaide’s childhood on the very same boardwalk haunts her to this day.

What happens when those bad memories collide with the ominous arrival of four people who look exactly like her family? Bad, bad things … and a very good horror film called Us. In his follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Get Out, Jordan Peele has created a film that is equal parts thrilling, pleasing, scary, and dare I say funny!

Adelaide was just a little girl when she wandered off from her parents at a carnival into one of those dark and desolate mazes right on the sand. Located yards away from the crushing waves of the ocean and under a blanketed thunderstorm, she saw something life-altering in that building, something that wouldn’t let her go. It’s this early scene that triggers the rest of the film, all the way down to its jaw-dropping climax and thrilling ending.

Peele doesn’t waste a minute of our time in setting things up. While other filmmakers would have dulled down our attention span with more useless build-up to the fright and terror, this renegade filmmaker gets right to the good stuff in a little over 30 minutes, refusing to let our minds wander.

I’ll be honest with you and admit it’s hard to talk about Us without tripping over sensors that may spark spoilers. After the menacing figures show up at the Wilson home, brooding at the top of the driveway in red jumpsuits and flash those spooky eyes, chaos ensues and the survival of the fittest commences. Can the family make it out alive, and in one piece physically as well as mentally?

That’s the game Peele is playing here, and it’s about as much as I can tell you about the second half of his movie. What I can tell you is that this is an extremely enjoyable film with a sly sense of humor attached to its gory details. You’ll get a chuckle when the actions shifts to the friends of the Wilson family, an adrift couple played by Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. Right when you think it’s okay to relax and breathe, Peele startles you again and again.

Here’s the thing. I’m not a big fan of the horror genre. For the past 10-15 years, few films from that corner of the film world have thrilled or dazzled me. I’d watch, shake my shoulders, and leave the theater. A scare here, a shock over there, and there I was, disenchanted in the corner of the theater waiting for the revelation that it was the evil grandmother this entire time … or the innocent-looking child. Meh, sigh, and a quick log off.

Peele has changed things. He’s taken a tired genre, and breathed new life into it. With Get Out, you had a horrific situation that grew in suspense and terror while making you laugh out loud. The film took audiences by surprise, and led to award attention, a thousand GIFS, and a long run in theaters. People still talk about it. Love it or hate it, it was the beginning of something new. Peele apparently was tired of the thankless slasher flicks and regurgitated scary flicks. How many times can the slowest man in the world wearing a mask shock you? Cancel the Halloween sequels and watch what Peele is doing.

He’s a renegade filmmaker with a one track mind: pump new blood into the horror genre, which means replacing the engine instead of merely spraying new paint on the vehicle.

The casting is solid, and it begins and ends with Nyong’o. The Oscar-winner plays two roles here, which means she has a dial into two completely different personas. After wooing us with her performance in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, the actress wasn’t in much. Aside from a forgettable role in Liam Neeson’s Nonstop and a small role in the new Star Wars films, she wasn’t headlining. Then, Black Panther came along and combined her dramatic talents with an action hero nobility. That continues, in more ways than one, in Us.

Nyong’o shared Ryan Coogler’s Marvel film with Duke, who played the big and brawny M’Baku. In Black Panther, he was this larger-than-life character, but in Peele’s film, he is a stumbling, goofy, and rather inferior protagonist, which is far different from his M’Baku. The man shows some range here.

Us isn’t a perfect film. There are holes in the plot. Everything doesn’t land on its feet. Then again, I don’t need everything explained for me. Every little plot thread doesn’t need a bow attached to it by the time the credits roll. After all, the greatness of film lies in its mystery and deception.  You should leave the theater thinking about the meaning behind the plot revelation, and wondering if everything you saw meant something or not. That’s the movies for you!

What Peele does prove with Us is that he isn’t slowing down. The cinematic gas pedal on the right is being pressed to the floor, which means upcoming projects like The Twilight Zone and Candyman remakes are going to be something else. Unlike some directors, Peele isn’t in the creative game just to cash a check. He wants to mess with convention, destroy expectation, and defy his predecessors.

When the embargo expired last week, people started comparing him to Steven Spielberg, which was a little drastic. I’d compare Peele’s impact to M. Night Shyamalan, who stunned Hollywood with his 1-2 punch of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Like M. Night did with the latter film, Peele is taking a genre and empowering it, which in turn alters our expectations moving forward.

When Us ended, I was smiling and in need of a rewatch. I wanted to track down the red herrings that Peele planted, and see if I caught them the first time. In short, I wanted more.

Pretty soon, I’ll have a fever and need more Peele.

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