‘Us’: Jordan Peele Elevates Modern Horror Cinema Again

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(2019—Director: Jordan Peele)

— by Renard N. Bansale

High ★★★★
(out of 5 stars) 

“Once upon a time, there was a girl…and the girl had a shadow.” — Red (Lupita Nyong’o) to Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o)

“What are you people?” … “We’re Americans.” — Gabriel “Gabe” Wilson (Winston Duke) and Red (Lupita Nyong’o)

Potential spoilers below

“The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout…”

Two years have passed since the release of Get Out, the directorial debut of writer-director Jordan Peele (of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele fame) and my review debut here at Impacting Culture. Get Out ended up ranking among my top 25 films of 2017. Yet little did I anticipate at the time of Get Out’s theatrical run how much of a cultural phenomenon it would end up becoming or how Peele would become the first Black director to gross $100 million in North America for a debut feature. Peele’s eventual Best Original Screenplay Oscar win (alongside Best Director and Best Picture nominations) at the 90th Academy Awards, given the movie’s Sundance 2017 premiere and late February wide release over a year earlier, is a miracle unto itself. Now, Peele shifts from horror-comedy to full-fledged horror with Us. While more bloody and grisly than Get Out, the filmmaking on display continues to impressively cohere with Jordan Peele’s bold cultural commentary.

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her easy-going husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph, voice of the future young Nala) and curious son Jason (Evan Alex) arrive at Adelaide’s childhood home near Santa Cruz to stay for the summer. Adelaide gets visibly anxious as Gabe takes them to the popular nearby beach next to the amusement park to relax with family friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker), and their twin teenage daughters Becca and Lindsey (real-life twins Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The Wilsons cut their outing short when Adelaide panics at the absence of Jason, who reappears after going for a bathroom break without notice. Back at home, Adelaide recounts to Gabe a traumatic experience she had at that beach as a child. The fear from that incident turns real when four strangers invade the house. The fight to survive kicks in, yet how will the Wilsons defend themselves in an instant…when the strangers look like their twins?

“Down came the rain and washed the spider out…”

Writer-director Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature has left me speechless. When Get Out was released, I will admit almost respecting it more than genuinely liking it. I sensed sophistication, yes, yet I also sensed a certain apprehension and, dare I say, a restraint that feels expected for a directorial debut. With Us, that apprehension is all but nonexistent. Peele takes what could have easily been typical invasion horror and injects into it an extraordinary energy, cinematic cohesion, and subtle statements on oppression among American brethren that are truly his own. Us is so rich with callbacks and foreshadowings in production design (Cara Brower, with set decorator Florencia Martin), character blocking, and editing (courtesy of Nicholas Monsour) that audiences must see the movie a second, a third, even a fourth time to fully relish them.

If Peele could manage a Best Actor nomination for Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya at the 90th Oscars, then Lupita Nyong’o deserves just as much, if not more. Six years removed from her Best Supporting Actress win for the Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave and having proven her worth as a supporting player in no less than five Disney productions since then, Ms. Nyong’o outdoes herself with her dual lead role in Us. As Adelaide, she conveys constant maternal concern with a hint of discretion. As Red, she is robotically relentless with a curious throat problem. Pretty much the entire cast, though not to the same extent as Ms. Nyong’o, give dual performances and they all serve the story well, with the standouts probably being Evan Alex (with a feral-like and pyromaniacal “tether”) and Elisabeth Moss. (Ms. Moss, as Kitty’s “tether” Dahlia, gets a memorable lip gloss application scene, contrasted with a most romantic cue in Michael Abels’ haunting and string-heavy score.) Again, invasion horror feels reinvigorated here, thanks to Jordan Peele’s writing and direction.

“Out came the sun and dried up all the rain…”

Us proves that Get Out was no fluke. Jordan Peele’s comedy has somehow perfectly translated to subversive, timely, and timeless horror, at a time when the latter genre remains in dire need of new life. In addition, as with last year’s Annihilation, it blows my mind how Us could establish such a lofty standard for cinema in 2019. The day may come when Jordan Peele’s twisted yet tantalizing brand of horror either disappoints or turns stale. That day, it most pleases me to write, is not today.

“Now the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.”

(Parental Note: Us has been rated R by the MPAA “for violence/terror and language.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “strong language, violence,” and “threat”, and L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for containing “much graphic and gory violence, about a half-dozen uses of profanity, numerous rough and crude terms, and mild sexual references.”)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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