The mind of Jordan Peele remains a smart and scary place, as the safety and bonds of home and family once again become the source of horror in his new thriller, Us. Peele, writer-director of the 2017 Oscar winner Get Out, likes to turn our assumptions about ourselves on their heads in the course of twisting our guts with suspense and violence.
Us begins with a leisurely 30 minutes of back story, starting with a traumatic childhood event in the life of Adelaide Wilson in 1986, then fast-forwarding to a present-day family vacation with Adelaide (the fine Lupita Nyong'o), her husband Gabe (Wilson Duke) and their two children. They’re returning to a beloved vacation home on a lake that clearly has too many windows and not enough neighbors.
The frights begin after dark, when a mysterious family resembling the Wilsons but dressed in red jumpers and armed with golden scissors shows up at the end of their driveway. The home invasion sequence is riveting and intense, but it’s only the beginning of the ride — the first freefall on a roller coaster that goes a lot of dark, unexpected places far afield from the Wilson family home.
That’s as much as should be said in advance about the plot. But in case there was any question, the intelligent-horror crown once claimed by M. Night Shyamalan now firmly belongs to Peele.
Comparisons to Get Out are inevitable and the parallels are many, most of them best left for post-film discussion. The chief difference between the movies is where their creativity is the strongest: Get Out builds gradually to a madcap but eye-opening third act in which all the plot threads all come together while the characters are coming apart. The cleverness of Us, on the other hand, is front-loaded. It’s as if Peele came up with a powerful premise (as seen in the trailers) and then had to devise a rather creaky mythology to explain it all.
It’s still destined to be a big hit, justifiably so, with repeat viewings to look for the first act clues to the third-act reveals. But while Get Out peeled back (so to speak) cultural niceties to suggest their disturbing underside, Us opts for something more reminiscent of the 1950s paranoia that generated a wealth of classic horror movies.
And Peele knows his thriller history, with hints of HItchcock, Kubrick, Peckinpah and many other filmmaking greats as Us unfolds. The movie also has a generous dose of the Peele wit, sometimes dripping with wise sarcasm, sometimes dripping with blood. (Kudos to the Beach Boys and N.W.A for allowing their music to be the butt of one such joke that turns gory.)
Most important, the tension that quickly dials up when the red-suited family appears remains high to the very end, which is what we all want out of a horror film. The debate about whether it all makes sense can wait until after the final credits.
Grade: B-plus. Rated R. Opens the evening of March 21 at Grail Moviehouse, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark and March 22 at the AMC River Hills.
(Photo: Universal Pictures)