Sunday Morning! “Us” (2019)
This week, I went and saw the horror movie “Us” written, produced, and directed by Jordan Peele. I have some thoughts! Here there be serious spoilers.
It’s important to note that Us is a horror film because it’s also a great film and, therefore, plenty of people will insist that it’s a “thriller”, a “dark satire”, a “psychological drama”- pretty much anything other than a horror movie. There is a type of Serious Person (i.e. middlebrow) who holds the horror genre in disdain, along with science fiction, heavy metal, and other subgenres that Serious People don’t care for. Hardcore film aficionados tend to not concern themselves so much about genre distinctions.
It seems to me that the best horror films essentially work on an illogical and non-rational level akin to nightmares. I’ve read criticisms of this movie because its central plot mechanics don’t quite “make sense”, but I think that’s not the right criteria for horror or fantasy. Vampires and werewolves are similarly strange and unnatural. Uncanny might be the right word.
Peele’s film updates a trope from gothic and romantic fiction: the doppelgänger. The word was coined by the romantic writer Jean Paul, but I associate it more with E.T.A. Hoffmann, who borrowed it shortly after and used it to more horrific effect. Hoffmann was sort of the Stephen King of his era and his writing only works now if the humor comes through in the translation. A bit later, Edgar Allan Poe would write a doppelgänger story, “William Wilson” in which a well-born young man is hounded by another with his own name- who gradually takes his appearance, speaks in a whisper, like Peele’s doppelgänger character, and thwarts all of his wicked plans before the narrator stabs and kills him. Dostoyevsky did the opposite: his “double” is aggressive, while his protagonist is a wimp, but doppelgänger stories always deal with the duality of man.
Doppelgänger stories almost always play off the uncanny fear of encountering your own double unexpectedly, often while passing on the street: the term literally means “double-goer”. I suspect that Jordan Peele first rooted his story with this (mostly) irrational fear, and a few other images that evoked similarly subconscious fears, and then tried to make sense of them through plot. Here, too, the film works more on the level of dream or allegory than realism. I suspect it will take people a while to absorb it and that it will later be remembered as a masterpiece.
It’s also a film dense with symbols and references. The first shot, for instance: a television set and the year “1986”. There are videotapes leaning against the set for the film C.H.U.D, about homeless men who are turned into cannibalistic mutants that live underground via toxic waste, and The Goonies, about teens who descend into tunnels beneath the earth. The commercial on the set is for the Hands Across America benefit, in which 6 million Americans came together in unity for fifteen minutes to raise money for the homeless, an image mirrored in the last shot of the film. Finally, a young girl is reflected in the set: mirrors will be a motif throughout the film.
The prologue section s basically a perfectly-constructed short film. A young girl, Adelaide, and her parents are on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz on vacation in the summer of 1986 (the film makes clever reference to the shooting of The Lost Boys on the same beach that summer). Adelaide wanders away from her parents to a funhouse whose signs read “Shaman Vision Quest” and “Find yourself” and indeed she does, encountering her double in the hall of mirrors. What’s great about the reveal in this scene is that Peele doesn’t use cheap jump cuts or jolts, which we’ve seen a hundred times; simply a shot of the girl’s face reacting in utter terror at something.
In the present day, Adelaide has grown up and is returning to Santa Cruz on vacation with her husband Gabe Wilson, daughter Zora, and son Jason, but remains traumatized by whatever it was that happened when she was a girl. The family is loving and complicated and has its own balance between the personalities. They are also very bougie. I think this was intentional and Peele is good at layering this so that we pick up on it but it’s not distracting. Notice too how their white friends, Josh and Kitty, are the far more annoying flipside of this, and how they seem as much rivals as friends. If this film is “about” anything, it’s about class.
That night, the inevitable doppelgängers arrive in the form of an invading family that seems like the less civilized version of our protagonists- the id to their superego. I liked the use of names here: Gabriel’s double is Abraham, Zora’s is Umbrae (Latin for shadow), Jason’s is Pluto (both the god of the underworld and the villain in The Hills Have Eyes (1977), in which a family is attacked while on vacation by cave-dwelling mutants). Finally, there’s Adelaide’s double Red, and, honestly, if Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t get nominated for an Academy Award, I’ll be shocked.
The doppelgängerfamily call themselves the “tethered”, they are the shadows of the Wilson family and played as their less cultured, mute, angry, and violent selves. Red, the only one who speaks in a whisper, says they are “Americans”, a line that some found a bit too “on the nose”. I actually found a line not long afterwards more telling, when Red ironically warns her son not to “burn down the house”. In fact, I was fairly certain that Peele was addressing race here, like he did in Get Out. There is something very potent about the image a bourgeois black family being attacked by a debased, essentially enslaved version of themselves.
Of course, this theory is upended about halfway through the film when the white couple, Josh and Kitty, and their children are killed off by their doubles. Eventually, we find that everyone in Santa Cruz is being attacked and killed by copies of themselves and the film changes tone quickly for the last act. There are a great many of these “tethered”, and they are, for the purposes of the plot, some sort of abandoned cloning experiment intended to “control” their “free” counterparts aboveground. The tethered have been living for decades underground in tunnels. Now they want to be “untethered” via very large scissors.
None of this entirely makes sense. But, read through symbolic logic, the idea that the disenfranchised and downtrodden are invisible to their middle class doubles, who live above them and by way of them in some sense, is a fairly potent parable.
During the film, I recalled driving through very rural parts of the United States a year before Trump was elected and thinking “these people are completely invisible”: the radio was Clear Channel with zero local content, the politics reflected no awareness of their reality, and the mass media never tells their stories. In a weird way, Jordan Peele has depicted social invisibility in monstrous form. As I left the theatre, I couldn’t help thinking of those white nationalists chanting “You will not replace us“, a genuinely bizarre expression of existential paranoia. In the film, the “tethered” intend very much to replace us. The doppelgänger almost always does.
Finally, let’s get to the final twist of the movie. We find out that Adelaide was replaced by her cloned double as a little girl in that funhouse years ago. So, the heroine is really the monster, a lesson all of the classic horror films taught us. This, for me, was the most chilling idea in the film. We’ve been told since the beginning of act two that the “tethered” are a somehow deficient version of “us”: slower, meaner, mostly unable to speak, less intelligent, lacking a soul- really all of the things that have historically been claimed about marginalized people. But, one of them got out and grew up to be a normal middle class citizen- one of us!– which I think is Peele’s way of suggesting that all of the things we know about those invisible underground monsters are controlling myths.
Or, perhaps, I’m being a bit too logical here…
Let’s talk about what YOU are watching, reading, pondering, or playing today!