Jordan Peele's 'Us' Asks: What If The Evil That Dwells Within Took Human Form?

Mar 22, 2019
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jordan Peele has been busy since his feature film debut, "Get Out," which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. His upcoming projects include a new streaming series based on "The Twilight Zone," premiering next month. He is the executive producer, as well as host and narrator. But for now, he has a new horror picture in theaters called "Us," which stars Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke as a couple on vacation with their kids. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Get Out" was the definition of a hard act to follow - a critically adored, Oscar-winning smash hit that announced the actor and comedian Jordan Peele as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. It was also a searingly confrontational movie about the horrors of being black in America - a thriller that turned white liberal racism into the most insidious of boogeymen.

The smart and relentlessly scary new thriller "Us" doesn't have anything quite that conceptually audacious up its sleeve, and that's a good thing. Peele isn't interested in repeating himself, and race, while hardly irrelevant here, isn't the chief source of tension this time around. His most radical gesture is to place an African-American family at the center of the action, with a matter-of-factness that we don't see enough of in mainstream movies.

Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke, who shared a few scenes as fellow Wakandans in "Black Panther," here play a married couple named Adelaide and Gabe Wilson. They're on summer vacation with their kids, Zora and Jason, in Santa Cruz, Calif., where they have a lakeside rental home and a beautiful beach just a few miles away.

But something about that beach frightens Adelaide, triggering flashbacks to a strange, startling encounter she had there as a young girl in 1986, which left her traumatized for months afterward. What exactly happened to Adelaide, and why is that coming back to haunt her now, more than 30 years later? We'll find out soon enough.

"Us" is a return of the repressed movie and a scary doppelganger movie. It's like a George Romero zombie freak-out crossed with "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers." On the first night of their vacation, the Wilsons are greeted by the unnerving sight of four visitors, who appear to be near-identical versions of themselves, standing silently in their driveway. Gabe tries to communicate with them but to no avail.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "US")

WINSTON DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) OK, let's call the cops.

LUPITA NYONG'O: (As Adelaide Wilson) I did. They're 14 minutes away.

DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) What? Fourteen minutes? OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK, OK. Jason, give me the bat.

EVAN ALEX: (As Jason Wilson) What bat?

DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) The baseball bat, the bat. There's one in the...

SHAHADI WRIGHT JOSEPH: (As Zora Wilson) Here, here.

DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) Thank you.

NYONG'O: (As Adelaide Wilson) Gabe...

DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) All right. Hold on. I got this. Let's try this again.

NYONG'O: (As Adelaide Wilson) Gabe...

DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. All right.

NYONG'O: (As Adelaide Wilson, yelling) Gabe.

DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) Got this. I got this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

DUKE: (As Gabe Wilson) Now, I thought I already done told y'all to get off my property, OK? So if y'all want to get crazy, we can get crazy.

CHANG: The goofy dad humor in Winston Duke's delivery is a perfect example of Peele's tonal approach - his skill at balancing a horror and hilarity. He reminds us that laughing, screaming and thinking are not mutually exclusive pleasures. And he gives us plenty to think about once the doppelgangers force their way into the Wilsons' home and sit down with them around the fireplace, setting a long night of confrontation and terror in motion.

As Adelaide's evil twin explains with chilling deliberation, each doppelganger is a shadow of sorts, a neglected, forgotten soul that has had no real life of its own until now. Each of them wields a set of very large, very sharp scissors, the purpose of which is not just to torture and kill but also to sever the ties that bind the doubles to their masters.

Peele has noted that "Us" was inspired by a classic episode of the original "Twilight Zone" series called "Mirror Image" about a woman who meets her own double at a bus station. The movie takes that premise to a frightening new extreme by asking the question, what if the evil that dwells within took human form? What if we encountered our own worst enemy, and that enemy turned out to be us? But Peele doesn't belabor his conceit.

Even more than "Get Out," which built slowly to its gory climax, this is a full-throttle horror movie packed with pulse-pounding chase scenes, beautifully timed jolts and occasional geysers of blood. Peele's suspense technique has grown in confidence. The action is elegantly composed and sharply edited. And he shrewdly keeps the worst terrors just off screen, letting our imaginations do the rest.

He's also a marvelous director of actors. Elisabeth Moss gives a wickedly funny performance as a friend of the Wilsons who has made the mistake of vacationing with her own family nearby. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are terrific as the Wilson children and also as their menacing doubles.

But "Us" belongs to Lupita Nyong'o, who won an Oscar for her wrenching work in "12 Years A Slave" and who carries this movie with a performance of astounding emotional force. It isn't just that Nyong'o is playing two roles - impressive as that is - she infuses Adelaide with so many distinct layers - from a survivor's lingering trauma to a mother's unshakeable resolve. There isn't a moment when she doesn't have us in her grip.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed "Us," the new horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele. On Monday's show, how extremists use social media to amplify their message, recruit new followers and incite violence. We talk with J.M. Berger, who has studied and written about ISIS and white nationalist movements in the U.S. and abroad. He is the author of the book "Extremism." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SASHA MASHIN'S "SOME THOMAS")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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