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US: JORDAN PEELE’S COMPLEX TAKE ON HORROR

Get Out announced the arrival of an exciting and important new voice in American film: writer-director Jordan Peele. We already knew what a talented actor and comedic artist he was, but the originality of this trenchant social satire was something else again.

What could he possibly do for an encore?

Us is a chilling, if marginally more conventional, exercise in horror. It has a prologue teaser that doesn’t fully pay off until the finale, and a number of clever, gruesome twists along the way. Us focuses on an African-American family and a childhood experience that haunts its loving and devoted mom (Lupita Nyong’o). Their trip to a summer house puts them perilously close to the beach at Santa Cruz, California, where Nyong’o had that encounter that hangs over her like a black cloud. How will this affect her family’s attempt at enjoying a carefree vacation? Just wait…

Invoking the phrase made popular in Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip, this movie elaborates on the slogan, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” To that end, Us incorporates the most vivid ingredients of a home-invasion thriller and a larger, all-embracing nightmare. To give away more (which the trailer neatly avoids, unless you inspect it shot by shot) would be unfair.

Along the way, Peele includes homages to Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and other filmmakers whose work he admires, especially in the realm of suspense. His composer, Michael Abels (who also scored Get Out), helps establish a sense of unease in the ordinary—like a visit to a sun-splashed beach—and heightens the terror of bloody attacks at night. In fact, all of Peele’s collaborators come through for him in a film that is made with skill and panache.

But when it was over I didn’t feel a sense of satisfaction. Perhaps that’s because Peele packed more into his dense screenplay than was absolutely necessary. To my mind, it’s self-consciously clever, and not to its benefit. The backstory, which fuels everything that follows, is full of odd choices. Admittedly, I’m not the kind of person who enjoys solving complicated puzzles, and that may be my Achilles’ heel when it comes to this film. All I know is that strictly on a gut level, the movie left me wanting.

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