“You guys ready?”
Jordan Peele asked this of the packed house at Austin’s Paramount Theater ahead of Friday night’s world premiere screening of “Us,” his new film as writer-producer-director and the opening night selection of the South By Southwest Film Festival.
The answer was both yes and no. Yes, in that the audience was at a fever pitch of excitement and anticipation before the screening began. “Us” is Peele’s follow-up to “Get Out,” a movie that became a box-office sensation, an Oscar winner and a cultural phenomenon. The crowd in Austin featured many notable faces, including Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, attorney Nina Shaw and a hip selection of talent such as Leslye Headland, Amber Ruffin, Nick Kroll, Eiza González and Elijah Wood.
Peele introduced the cast of his film, also seated in the audience, ahead of the screening. When Oscar-winning star Lupita Nyong’o popped up from her seat, the house burst into a huge ovation, continuing for Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as well as young actors Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex.
Before the movie began, Peele added, “This movie is about a lot of things. I’m curious and excited to hear what you have to say after the film.”
Frankly, there was no way for that audience to fully understand what was about to hit them. Terrifying, entertaining and thrillingly ambitious, layering theme upon theme and twist upon twist, “Us” is a bold work of a brilliance set free, the kind of movie that a filmmaker gets to make when their previous title brings in more than $255 million worldwide on a budget of $4.5 million.
“Us” is the story of a family, the Wilsons, who go to their summer house in Santa Cruz for a getaway only to find themselves under siege by people who seem to be the evil shadow-twin versions of themselves. From there, the tension escalates, the themes deepen, and one shock follows another.
The movie’s idea of those second-selves, “The Tethered,” dressed in red jumpsuits while brandishing large, sharpened scissors, will likely become part of the cultural conversation in much the same way that the notion of “The Sunken Place” from “Get Out” took hold.
In the Q&A after the film, Nyong’o spoke about collaborating with Peele on the follow-up to his groundbreaking debut as a filmmaker. For “Get Out,” Peele became the first African American to win the Oscar for original screenplay and to be nominated as a writer, director and producer in the same year.
“Working with Jordan Peele, it terrified me; I won’t lie,” Nyong’o said. “He does such incredible things with story, and to think that I was going to be working with him next was just — I couldn’t even compute it in my head.”
Peele explained that the actors shot their different characters on different days, which could drastically change the vibes on set. The dual performances, by Nyong’o in particular, are astonishing
Peele said the actors developed two distinct, fully formed characters, “And not just in a two-dimensional way, in a three-, four-dimensional way. I really got everybody’s individual crazy out of them, and, for that, I’m forever proud.”
I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face, maybe the evil is us.”
Though they are not said in the movie, those second versions of the characters have names all their own, included in the end credits. Nyong’o plays the characters of both Adelaide Wilson and Red, while Duke plays Gabe Wilson and the invader Abraham.
“I never actually saw Abraham as a villain,” said Duke. “[The approach to the character] was looking at Gabe from Abraham’s point of view — it was just like, ‘You have all the things that I want.’ ”
Peele was asked from the audience what he wanted people to take away from the film.
“It’s a question I’m hesitant to answer,” Peele said, “because I think my favorite thing is the idea that people will leave ready to have a conversation, with whoever they’re with.
“On the broader strokes of things, this movie is about this country,” Peele continued. “And when I decided to write this movie, I was stricken with the fact that we are in a time where we fear the other, whether it is the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us, take our jobs, or the faction that we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger.
“And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face, maybe the evil is us.”
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