Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex
Written by: Jordan Peele
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Reviewed by: Rob Vaux
Horror and comedy are more closely related than people think. They both rely on timing and delivery to function, and finding that timing involves a little bit of alchemy. Jordan Peele has become an extraordinary director in a very short amount of time, and watching his work on Key and Peele, you could see why that alchemy came together so quickly. Certain sketches scuttle right up to the line between laughs and chills, then think long and hard about jumping across before winking and delivering the punchline. That gives him the technical chops to produce elegant and very frightening set pieces, as well as sparkling dialogue and keen eye for social commentary.
His debut feature, Get Out, might just have defined horror movies for this particular moment in time. Wisely, he decides not to outdo himself with his second feature Us: scaling his ambitions back and aiming for good old-fashioned scares. Us lacks the overt political bite of Get Out – race, for instance, plays a more incidental part in the horrors that unfold – but it manages to say much more than first appears, and its massive success suggest that newborn fans may be obsessing over its twists and turns for many years to come.
The big twist itself – already the subject of much chatter on social media – is expertly delivered, thanks in part of a riveting building up and an already delicious finale. Its tale begins with a little girl (Madison Curry), lost in a hall of mirrors on the Santa Cruz Pier. Thirty years later, that little girl has grown up to be a mother of two (Lupita Nyong’o), with a loving husband and a summer home not too far from that fateful pier. Then one night, the doppelgangers show up. With scissors. And the zany mayhem begins.
Much has been made (and will continue to be made) of that false family: sporting terrifyingly certain grins and a pair of sheers in each clenched fist. Where they came from and what they want become a rich part of the film’s subtext: the kinds of questions that horror nerds obsess over for years. Peele shows a panache for exposition and visual information in delivering his concepts. His monstrous “tethers” are quite out there conceptually, and yet Peele conveys the rules of their existence elegantly, efficiently, and with a minimum of clunky dialogue.
On a more immediate level, they work fantastically well as monsters in the dark. You don’t need to know their backstory to understand they mean no good for Nyong’o’s Adelaide Wilson or her well-bred middle-class family who suddenly find themselves in a battle for their lives. The tethers’ origins – and the big twist accompanying it – become great fodder for repeat viewings, but we don’t need to know that in order to enjoy a little boo-gotcha fun. Peele starts with his setting: the vacation home here echoes the sinister house in Get Out, where the protagonists are supposed to feel at home, but everything is SO VERY WRONG. Drench it with shadows, toss in some creepy noises, and let DP Mike Gioulakis’ inventive camerawork cover the heavy lifting, and the resulting set pieces elicit scares as a matter of course. Peele’s comedy background delivers big laughs just often enough to remind everyone to enjoy themselves, and without compromising on the real and profound terrors lurking beneath them.
Like most great horror directors, Peele is himself a passionate fan of the genre, which appears in subtle in-jokes sprinkled liberally throughout the film. More pertinently, it explains his careful attention to detail and the intelligent way he deploys his various twists and turns. Longtime horror fans have something here to chew on for a long time, but the casual date night crowd won’t want for anything either. Deeper messages remain enigmatic, but tantalizingly close to the surface, letting you invest as much or as little into the viewing experience as you wish. Most importantly, it proves that Get Out was no fluke, and that this director may just be getting started.