clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘Us’ and Them: Why Jordan Peele Is the New Master of Suspense

Without much warning, the writer-director of ‘Get Out’ has taken on a key role in the Hollywood hierarchy. But the burden it brings is heavy.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The ending of Us is twisty, unsettling, and oddly shaped. I won’t spoil the surprise, though it demands that viewers retrace and reconsider the film’s narrative structure. Like any worthy brain-bender, it insists upon a rewatch. It’s an audacious choice with clear influences: a Twilight Zone conclusion—an Aha! followed instantly by a Wait, what?—mixed with the despairing and morbidly clever finish of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. If Jordan Peele’s first film, Get Out, signaled the arrival of a singular new voice in genre-driven social satire, his new movie, Us, declares him something more straightforward: a master of suspense. He makes movies that feel modern, persistent, and wracked with unease—movies that are of a time, and that we will one day use to describe that time. Peele isn’t the first to claim this mantle. Hitchock was the originator, but Rod Serling, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Wes Craven, Guillermo del Toro, and M. Night Shyamalan have staked a claim to the title in the past. It’s a vital but burdensome role in the popular imagination. On the one hand, every new release is an event. On the other hand, every new release has to be an event.

Us is the most compelling major studio release of the year so far—and it’s effective as both disquieting horror and subversive comedy. Whether it works as a grand statement about life in this country is more likely to stoke debate. One thing the film cannot do is offer the surprise of Get Out. When it was released in February 2017, Peele was known primarily as a sketch comedy writer and performer. The phenomenon of Get Out was utterly unpredictable—$255 million at the box office on a $5 million budget, to go with the instantaneous induction of several ideas into the pop cultural phrasebook: The Sunken Place. No, no, no, no, no, no. The spoon and the teacup. Rose, gimme those keys! It became idiomatic—a movie with a living history.

Us, however, is larded with expectations. You can feel it reckoning with the anxiety that’s built into following up a beloved debut. Peele’s intentionality feels both wider and more opaque. “It’s a bit more of a Rorschach than my last picture,” Peele told me last week after the film’s premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. “It really is about looking within.” I love that Peele encourages viewers to seek out greater meaning in the movies he makes. He’s not a difficult artist or a mysterious Oz pulling levers behind a curtain. Like Hitchcock or Serling, he’s a showman. “I wanted to offer a fun starting point for racial conversation,” Peele told me about Get Out in 2017, “maybe some new touchstones in how we discuss race.” He’s Spielberg for the Reddit set—a populist with a twisted sense of humanity.

In Us, which follows the Wilson family on a beach trip to Santa Cruz, California, Peele presents the grandest possible theme: true evil lurks within. It’s made so brazenly clear, it’s hard to know whether to feel satisfied by the ambition or grumpy about its forthrightness. Maybe that’s the sign of a fearless writer. Or a guileless entertainer. Perhaps both. Normally, it’d feel foolish to be grateful for an entertaining movie from the inventive mind of an exciting new filmmaker. But with Peele, is it enough just to entertain?

A scene from ‘Us’
Universal Pictures

For decades, Alfred Hitchcock was held in contempt by certain critics as a one-note trickster, more interested in the gimmickry of cinema—a fright peddler—than the epic, dramatic storytelling that was valorized in his time. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director five times, but never won, often losing to humanists like William Wyler. In the latter stages of his career, thanks to critical reevaluations in Europe and America, his ingenuity and influence came to the fore. He was worshipped and diminished at the same time. But eventually, seven of his films were added to the National Film Registry and four were named among the American Film Institute’s 100 best films of all time. Sight and Sound has named his Vertigo the greatest film ever made. He is now remembered as one of the three or four most important popular filmmakers of the 20th century.

Peele has grabbed hold of Hitchcock’s legacy by imitating some of his cleverest tactics. Both men are crowd-pleasing, coyly comic, and incisively strategic filmmakers working primarily in terror. Both are deeply self-conscious about style. Peele used the word “brand” when describing his work to me earlier this month. But that was unselfconscious. Like Hitchcock, Peele knows that marketing and message are synonyms.

“My creative drive automatically goes toward where I think the audience expectations are, and when I can pinpoint that, I can take them another way,” he says. “I can use that momentum against the audience.”

The presumption that Peele would return to a definitively black story lived right up until the moment the movie debuted in Austin. The Wilsons are African American—portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph—but their story is not specifically oriented around their race.

“After Get Out, the audience has very clear expectations,” Peele says. “I know a lot of people assume my next movie would be about race, for example. So that’s exactly why I wanted to make a movie that starred a black family but isn’t about race. Because I think the moment an audience realizes that, they realize they have to submit. They have to lay down in my hands and say, ‘Well, I’m gonna try and stop expecting things.’ Which they’ll never really be able to do, especially when I’m peppering you with horror tropes that usually take you down certain paths, and trying to flip them on their heads. This movie, I wanted something of a Holy shit, he just did that feeling.”

Lupita Nyong’o in ‘Us’
Universal Pictures

Horror—so often the funny, gory, ghoulish, orgasmic height of movies—is a fitting playpen for Peele. But I wonder whether it’s a cage, too. He nods overtly to his inspirations. A single glove that resembles Freddy Krueger’s is worn by the monsters. VHS copies of C.H.U.D. and The Man With Two Brains can be seen on a shelf. Peele himself has started dressing like Jack Torrance. But these iterative footnotes are a joy for viewers who care about this sort of thing. And he’s building a visual vocabulary of his own, too. Hitchcock once said “Self-plagiarism is style,” and Us finds Peele polishing visual cues he first mined in Get Out. A frisbee lands on the circle design of a beach towel, perfected synced—a doubling image. A tautological biblical passage, Jeremiah 11:11, appears to ominously warn us of God’s wrath. Michael Abels’s jagged, hymnal score is a demonic counterweight to the backwoods menace music he composed for Get Out. In Us, another beautifully photographed face reveals a single streaming tear—this time Nyong’o instead of Daniel Kaluuya—the clearest measure of unspoken fear. Peele is star-mapping in a universe of his own design, but he’s bound by his past. At times, Us is a hyperactive, attenuated, TV-raised pop cultural overload. When we spoke, Peele cited Alien, which he called “maybe the greatest horror movie ever,” as a fitting double feature with Us. Alien was released in theaters just three months after Peele was born. We are what we watch. We grow up to be our obsessions.

Suspense is still the primary vehicle for his work, and it ought to be. His knack for tension is astonishing. Us drags you by the eye sockets, leaving you wondering where it’s all heading for two hours. Is this going to be peak Hitchcock or mid-period Shymalan?, I found myself thinking. And then Peele finally tells you what he means. He gives us the information we need. Perhaps too much.

“A mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunit. But suspense is essentially an emotional process,” Hitchcock said in 1970. “Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information. And I daresay you’ve seen many films which have mysterious goings on, you don’t know why the man is doing that, and you’re about a third of the way through the film before you realize what it’s all about. And to me, that’s completely wasted footage, because there’s no emotion to it.”

I thought of that often when considering Us’s ending. How emotional it is, even if it isn’t as plainly satisfying as Get Out. (Which, of course, didn’t always end in such a satisfying way.) Being the master of suspense means eventually ending the suspense. Conclusion is key, but crescendoes are more important. Peele wants audiences to walk out of his films rethinking their assumptions, untying his knots. Hitchcock didn’t always stick the landing either. The dumb, oversimplified ending of Psycho springs to mind. But that isn’t the lasting impression of that film. It’s the shower scene, Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing score, Anthony Perkins yawping, “Mother! What have you done?” Us is similar—a series of unforgettable images, wedded like an unbroken chain. When it ends, it ends. But it isn’t over.