'Us' Review: Jordan Peele Provides a Master Class in Horror

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Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As the theater lights dimmed for my screening of Us, some piece of projection equipment popped -- POP! -- and the audience screamed, a few frightened out of their seats as the screen began flashing green and black. Whatever went wrong in the booth was speedily fixed and the movie started again without issue, the minor delay only proving everybody had come ready and willing to be terrified by Jordan Peele's latest nightmare.

Even if the theater hadn't created a jump scare of its own, Peele doesn't make you wait long for one. Where Get Out -- his 2017 directorial debut -- eased viewers into its insanity, twisting its social commentary into a frightening fever dream, Us is more straight-forward genre fare, a horror movie that has dread baked in from the very start in a 1986-set prologue that features an unnerving doe-eyed girl, twisty-turny funhouse mirrors, ominous whistling and rabbits.

In the present day, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and Gabe Wilson (her Black Panther co-star Winston Duke) are headed to the beach with their children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) for a family getaway, though Adelaide can't shake the feeling that something bad's going to happen. Then four strangers show up in the night, standing outside their home in the driveway -- strangers who look exactly like them. The rest is best left for you to discover.

It's a premise that allows its actors to flex their muscles, though I'm wary of sharing much about the doppelgängers -- or, the Tethered -- except to say that everyone in the ensemble is exceptional in their dual roles, from the young actors, seamlessly transitioning from tweens to something sinister, to Duke, who's a hoot, to Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as superficial family friends. Moss's role, in particular, risks bordering on the clichéd had she not chewed it up with unhinged gusto.

In the end, though, this is Nyong'o's movie. Her performance here is masterful -- not to say the least of her flawless accent work -- and that's before her Tethered persona shows up and she goes for broke, a lurid, animalistic turn that you can't believe you are seeing, even as you're watching it. This should be a breakthrough role for Nyong'o, in a way even her Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years a Slave wasn't. (This is her first leading role, in fact, after being largely sidelined to supporting and mo-cap work.)

Each of these performances exist within a construct of Peele's precise design. He expertly lays out the pieces and, eventually, reveals them like Chekhov's gun, a dozen equally-satisfying times over. More than anything, the writer-director has perfected levels, stoking a white-knuckle tension, curdling it into sheer terror and then breaking it with a moment of levity, only to stoke that tension again. Of course, seeing as this is a Jordan Peele production, there are a number of ambitious themes layered in, ready for interpretation. But first and foremost, Us proves that he's a maestro of horror, and this is his symphony of terror.

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