Jordan Peele explores trauma of introspection in ambitious, stunning horror film ‘Us’

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Jordan Peele’s “Us” may just be the best film of the year. Yes, it’s too early to tell, but as a follow-up to to the stellar 2017 horror-satire film “Get Out,” “Us” adheres to many of Peele’s established filmmaking strengths. It solidifies Peele’s presence as a master of the horror genre with mesmerizing performances from its lead actors, plenty of easter eggs, foreshadowing and brilliantly complex social allegory.

“Us” is a near seamless consortium of all of these elements, while throwing in a handful of high-concept psychological thrills for good measure. One thing’s certain: Whether or not it’s the year’s best film, it’s sure to be the year’s most daring, sophisticated and terrifying.

“Us” follows the Wilson family, headed by stern matriarch Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and unassuming, happy-go-lucky dad Gabe (Winston Duke) as they take their kids to a vacation house in Santa Cruz for a brief, relaxing getaway at the beachside amusement park. It all sounds promising enough, but there’s one catch — it’s the same beach where Adelaide had a traumatizing childhood encounter with her menacing doppelgänger.

Adelaide’s hesitation and anxiety at the beach are largely dismissed by her family until a group of their exact look-alikes clad in red suits and holding bulky metal scissors, dubbed “the tethered,” arrive at their beach house driveway threatening to attack.

To say much more about the plot of “Us,” a film with an intricate premise and an even more elaborate progression of events, would be spoiling it. It’s tricky to pinpoint more detail in the storyline than that which has already been revealed in the film’s dynamic, thought-provoking trailer.

It’s a testament to the sheer brilliance of Peele’s screenplay, direction and overall craftsmanship that “Us” necessitates a viewer’s full attention. From start to finish, Peele steers this supernatural thriller to a tense, explosive conclusion. Along the way, he employs a script that is filled with deliberately ominous dialogue that superbly guides the audience to the not-so-surprising surprise twist ending. Once the viewer catches on to Peele’s several leads in the story, the conclusion can be seen coming from a mile away. Unlike the shockingly bizarre end to “Get Out,” the immediate impact of this film’s conclusion feels like a bit of a letdown.

That’s not to say that the ending undermines the cleverness of the existing script. In fact, not only do Peele’s cues help thread the events of the film together, but his many one-liners, symbols and distinct characters help connect the film to its broader themes. Peele doesn’t just urge us to examine our individual tendencies of malevolence and corruption, he also presents a deep dive into the collective selfishness and shallowness that carry throughout the U.S.

The magic of Peele’s script is brought to light especially by its captivating lead performances. As family children Jason and Zora, respectively, Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph are expertly emotive; they exhibit fear and maturity in all the right places. Duke, after his star-making turn in “Black Panther” last year, offers some much-needed comic relief as patriarch Gabe throughout the film, who despite his fervent desire to protect his family, possesses none of the technical ability or smarts to do just that.

But it’s Nyong’o in her roles as the frightened, protective Adelaide and her unnerving doppelgänger Red that steals the show and runs away with it. Her performance is tragic, multilayered and utterly unsettling all at once. Nyong’o’s ability to distinguish between her characters while imbuing them both with nuanced power and personality is an acting achievement for the ages.

A final note must go to the exceptional use of music in “Us.” From the opening credits’ naggingly eerie score by previous Peele collaborator Michael Abels to a darkly comedic moment involving the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” music, lyrics and rhythm are all integral to making the film as effective as it is. And then there’s the slowed-down orchestral theme that builds on the minor-key motif present in Luniz’s 90s hit “I Got 5 on It.” The tune left a haunting impact after its usage in the trailer for “Us,” but nothing can prepare audiences for the way it brilliantly accompanies one of the film’s pivotal climactic showdowns.

“Us” is a film that will stay with you long after the credits start rolling and you’ve left the movie theater. It’s a film that requires multiple viewings, because each time you watch it, “Us” is bound to carry a wholly different meaning. As only the second film in Jordan Peele’s directorial repertoire (and a worthy successor at that), “Us” cements the filmmaker’s status as one of the greatest creative minds in Hollywood today.

Anagha Komaragiri is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.