A film review by Craig J. Koban April 5, 2019

US jjj

2019, R, 120mins.


Lupita Nyong'o as Adelaide Wilson  /  Winston Duke as Gabriel "Gabe" Wilson  /  Evan Alex as Jason Wilson  /  Shahadi Wright Joseph as Zora Wilson  /  Elisabeth Moss as Mrs. Tyler  /  Tim Heidecker as Mr. Tyler  /  Kara Hayward as Nancy

Written and directed by Jordan Peele




I can't think of a single other filmmaker in recent memory that has had as much of an unlikely career transition and meteoric rise in the industry as Jordan Peele.  

He went from writing and appearing in TV sketch comedy as part of the two-man group Key and Peele with Keegan Michael Key and literally overnight became a member of the directorial elite with his first feature film behind the camera in 2017's GET OUT, a horror thriller and scathing piece of social commentary that netted Peele an Oscar win for Best Screenplay as well as a slew of other nominations, including Best Picture.  GET OUT was one of the most talked about and seen genre films of the last ten years, and marked a highly respected big screen director debut for Peele, and after nabbing Academy Award gold for his efforts many have been wondering since if he could create a sophomore effort with as much creative punch. 

Now comes his newest film US, which begs me to ask one simple question: 

Is Jordan Peele a one-hit filmmaker wonder? 

The short answer (and after seeing his latest): Not at all. 



Perhaps more so than the audience and critical darling in GET OUT, US is much more focused on being a straight up horror film with a tad less emphasis on social commentary, which is initially somewhat disappointing.  Still, Peele has crafted one humdinger of an infectious premise with his latest fright-fest that has echoes of some of the more classic and memorable episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (which, incidentally, Peele is quarterbacking a reboot of).  That's not to say, though, that US doesn't have any thematic ambition at all with its frankly out-there premise.  With GET OUT Peele crafted a darkly funny, yet thoroughly disturbing dissection of race relations in America, whereas with US he's dabbling into ideas of American identity, duality, and the negative effects of marginalizing those we see as different and/or unworthy.  Peele's second film doesn't quite feel as fluidly polished as his rookie effort, but with US he nevertheless demonstrates what a natural directing talent he is at delivering intriguing setups and intoxicating viewers into every nightmarish turn his story then takes.  

Delving too specifically into plot particulars will prove to be challenging here, seeing as relaying too much would lead to wanton spoilers.  All you basically need to know about the central narrative arc is this: After an undeniably chilling to the bone prologue set in 1986 that features an extremely traumatizing event for the main character when she was a child while at a creepy amusement part attraction in Santa Cruz, US flashes forward to the present day when the same person, Adelaide (an intensely strong Lupita Nyong'o) is about to embark on a much needed vacation with her loyal and loving husband Gabe (BLACK PANTHER's Winston Duke) and their two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) at their summer home (located near, yup, that aforementioned amusement park).  One night their home is invaded by a freakish family unit of four, and once they reveal themselves Adelaide, Gabe, and the kids discover to their absolute shock that these invaders are...exact duplicates of them that are about to make their lives very,  very intolerable for the next 90 minutes or so of the running time. 

Pagin' Rod Serling. 

Again, that's all I'm going to say about the specific story trajectory of US, other than to say that Adelaide and her family will go through a living hell trying to fend off the attacks of the vile and mostly monosyllabic doppelgangers, all of whom act like unthinking, bloodthirsty, and zombified monsters.  Compellingly, only one of the evil family members is able to speak, Adelaide's sadistic twin, but she mostly enunciates through what is perceived to be a throat injury.  One thing that Peele does with exceedingly empowered proficiency is to impart his film with great personalities and giving them all colorful dialogue exchanges that helps the frightening elements of the film go down that much more easily (so many other horror thrillers engage in witless and dime-a-dozen obligatory dialogue that just relays expositional particulars, so it's always refreshing to witness Peele transcend such genre contrivances).  Also, he shows what an absolute master he is at concocting individual sequences of nail biting Hitchcockian suspense that fosters such an aura of escalating dread and anxiety of things to come for the audience.  The home invasion in particular is as tightly edited and exemplarily paced as anything I've seen lately, and you gain a great sense of Peele reveling at joyously manipulating viewers in moments like this; when the director is in his wheelhouse in sequences like this he's a pretty unstoppable force and shows why he's the real deal. 

Peele has also assembled another grade-A cast, the four principles that comprise the family having the tricky task of making each family unit (one good, one evil) seem distinctively different from one another.  I liked how Duke is afforded opportunities to let his comic timing and skills as a performer to shine through the inherent darkness of this material, and seeing this dweeby father trying to makes sense of the madness that surrounds him and his clan provides some of US's best source of sustained laughs.  The film utterly belongs to Nyong'o and her fiery and deeply committed dual performance that has to, on one hand, show Adelaide as a deeply traumatized, yet ferociously determined and protective material figure that will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of her husband and children.  She also has great fun portraying this woman's psychopathic twin, whose raspy voiced inflections and lust for all things mayhem and murder makes her so devilishly and unpredictably scary throughout the film.  A great actress would be lucky to pull of one sensational performance in a film, but Nyong'o gives two here. 

Despite all of the greatness that Peele and his consummate acting ensemble bring to the proceedings here, there's simply no shaking the fact that US does have its share of nagging issues that holds it back from achieving true masterful status.  The film is like a beguiling and layered onion that requires attentive viewers to constantly peel and dig towards its center for multiple interpreted meanings, which is a trait I generally love.  I'm a man that appreciates films that are hard to decipher enigmas and thematic Rubik's Cubes that places trust in viewers to solve after seeing it.  The main problem with US is that Peele's fantastically successful opening few acts gives way to a disappointing final 20-30 minutes, during which time he lays all of his storytelling cards on the table and leaves very little unexplained.  There's a moment in the climax when hero and villain confront one another and the latter goes out of her way to provide an unnecessarily thorough explanation of the extraordinary events that have been transpiring in the film.  A hypnotic freak-out experience like US would have greatly benefited from a less is more approach as it wrapped itself up towards a conclusion; there's very little haunting ambiguity going on here when we grow to learn how everything happened. 

And at the risk of going into mild spoilers, US culminates with a late breaking plot twist that, upon modest scrutiny, doesn't seem to logically hold up very well.  That, and it felt like a tacked on and redundant cheat, if you ask me.  Now, not all plot twists need to make pitch perfect sense, mind you, but the one Peele drums up here never feels completely earned or justified.  Added to that is the notion that the director also seems to be adhering to - as he did to disappointing effect in the climax of GET OUT - the very overused and dry horror thriller troupes that he's obviously trying very hard to subvert and transcend (i.e. - characters making stupid decisions about leaving safe areas to explore dangerous ones, and often on their own).  But, seriously, it's very hard for me to dismiss US: It's a solid companion piece and inspired spiritual sequel to GET OUT, and as an inventive, assured and well oiled exercise in genre filmmaking, Peele has most certainly defied any sophomore jinxes.  Despite some creative hiccups on his part, Peele certainly has earned his early silver screen career reputation for being an alluring provocateur with each new film.  

To me, this guy's just getting warmed up.  



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