The first thing to do before watching Jordan Peele’s unnerving horror thriller “Us” is to forget about his first movie, the Oscar-winning mind trip “Get Out” — because this one is a whole different experience, and comparisons become useless rather quickly.
As writer and director on his second outing, Peele serves up a more straight-forward horror thriller, without the dark, satirical take on racial stereotypes and white fascination with African-Americans’ bodies that “Get Out” so masterfully portrayed. There’s still subtext here, but it’s more elusive and slippery, about the struggle between good and evil within us all.
It’s summer and the Wilson family is taking a vacation to Santa Cruz, Calif. Specifically, they’re going to the lakeside house where the mom, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) went when she was a little girl. She’s not exactly thrilled with the idea, as we see in a prologue flashback, which shows a six-year-old Adelaide (Madison Curry, in a terrifying movie debut) being traumatized by an incident at a seaside carnival hall of mirrors.
Against her better judgment, Adelaide is talked into going to the beach by her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their kids, teen track athlete Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and young Jason (Evan Alex), who’s obsessed with magic tricks. At the beach, they hang out with another family, the Tylers — parents Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), and stuck-up twin teens Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon).
Getting back to the house, the Wilsons see four menacing figures in the driveway. To say much more is to deny Peele the sound of audience gasps and screams that he worked so hard to provoke. The only thing I’ll say is this: Peele sneakily leaves clues in plain sight, foreshadowing what’s to come, in the movie’s first 10 minutes.
Peele twists the screws expertly, sometimes goosing us with a solid jump-scare, sometimes relying on the slow burn to instill a sense of dread. Peele has figured out Alfred Hitchcock’s trick of playing the audience like a calliope, delivering shocks and withholding them at the same time, making us flinch and writhe as a unit.
Peele has assembled an ensemble cast that can administer the shocks as necessary. In particular, Duke brings a comic edge that deftly cuts the tension to make us drop our guard, and Moss delivers the most wicked grin this side of The Joker.
But first and foremost, “Us” is Nyong’o’s game, and she has come to play. She turns in a performance that’s essentially a double act, capturing both Adelaide’s terror and her determination to do anything to protect her family. When we’re talking about award-worthy performances next winter, Nyong’o should be in the conversation for this shockingly good performance.
Opens Friday, March 22, at theaters everywhere. Rated R for violence/terror, and language. Running time: 116 minutes.