Jordan Peele’s Us bears many obvious linkages to Get Out, Peele’s 2017 box-office slayer, but Us feels less like a retread or even an update or extension of Get Out than a perversion, a disruption, a chaotic disfigurement of the earlier film’s elegant simplicity. Us is both more existential and more surreal, more playful and more brutal, and, above all, more experimentally distended, exhibiting a newly ravaged and warped texture that is very much to my taste, but not necessarily to those looking for a clean like of argumentation in the film, or even a clear subject. Get Out’s comparatively streamlined metaphor for sight, sightlessness, and embodiment was tight, vicious, and tenacious – perfect for itself, and perhaps for a first film – but not nearly so troublesome as Us, which actively and conspicuously refuses the snug moral logic and trimmed-down narrative of Get Out. Us isn’t avant-garde in any overt sense, but where Get Out’s story fell into place, this new film buckles, utilizing horror for its demonic textural and thematic elasticity and indescribability rather than merely as a generic skeleton for a moral parable. It’s storytelling by way of allusion, digression, and disturbance, a film that benefits or suffers greatly (depending on your proclivity) from writer-director Jordan Peele’s obvious enthusiasm overtaking his discretion, his ensuing disdain for hedging his bets and, probably, his frustration with heeding the rules and regulations of Hollywood storytelling. It’s as if, having mastered the art of skillful middlebrow horror cinema, Peele decided to dismember it.
Us opens on a middle-class African-American family driving to their summer vacation home at the Santa Cruz beach. The members of the family are mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). Over the first half-hour of the film, we intuit that Adelaide is generally nonplused about the yearly visit to the beach, but she seems particularly perturbed this year. We also know that when she was a young girl thirty years ago, she ventured off course at the same beach, wandered into a hall of mirrors at a funhouse, and something happened involving a seeming reflection of her that simply refused to behave accordingly.
Soon enough, in the present day, another family appears in their driveway. Not just any family: freakish cracked-mirror images of themselves, towering Abraham (also Duke), menacing, carnivorous Umbrae (also Joseph), and animalistic Pluto (also Alex). And they’re lead by their only speaking member, Red (also Nyong’o), who croaks out a grotesque parody of the human vocal form and informs the family that they are their doubles, “tethered” to them, and that they are here, scissors in hand, ready for what she calls the “untethering”. Soon, Peele unleashes a thoroughly brutal set-piece where each family member tackles their respective double, an existential and inward-looking riff on Get Out’s pulpy meditation on black bodies masking white consciousnesses.
So far, so good, and so very, very effective. Up until this point, Us reads rather easily as an exorbitantly well-mounted horror-thriller, a thematically-playful variation on the home invasion thriller that implicitly massages out tensions in a bourgeois black family being assaulted in their homes by their negative doubles who, in subtle but indistinguishable ways, mimic vocal and physical aspects associated with (read: stereotypes of) the African-American working class. (For instance, Abraham can only moan in a booming baritone, and when Gabe wishes to threaten the impending family, “protecting his family,” he lowers his voice several pitches from his typically nasally tone to a more stereotypically “black” voice). And Peele vocalizes his own love for the horror film form, mounting an abnormally acid-laced household thriller of dismembered private property and bodies questioning their own allegiance to their minds.
And a thriller that is more ambiguous, and perhaps vaguer, than Get Out ever was with its own allegory of white desire to control the black body. That earlier film thematized perception, implicating even the white art dealer, physically blind and metaphorically color-blind, who nominally wanted protagonist Chris’ eyesight because Chris was a photographer (rather than because he was black). The blind man could not quite register that the protagonist’s ability to take those photographs (to “see”) was linked, in part, to his doubly-conscious perception of society, his perspectivally-attuned understanding of whiteness and blackness and his ability to visualize the toxic undercurrents of liberal racism ever-so-tenuously hidden beneath the surface façade of their goodwill.
Us is less specific in its visual metaphors, more scattershot in its targets. Although Peele has clearly emerged with a more formidable eye for horror with this film, his eye for thematic consistency is perhaps more diffuse here, and less singularly specific in its analytic elevation of race over class. Admittedly, his understanding of the central family’s ability to (temporarily) outwit their doppelgangers is implicitly connected to what is perceived as a heightened sense of self-awareness, in particular their skepticism about trusting others and young Jason’s ability to trick his doppelganger even when he cannot explicitly vocalize his thoughts. It is telling that Jason, in particular, wears an animal mask throughout his daily life, metaphorically hiding his true identity but also, more presciently, intimating subcutaneous truths about what Ralph Ellison referred to as African-American “masking,” a folkway that various theorists have understood to be an essential current of the day-to-day art of resistance and survival in the African-American tradition.
But if Jason’s mask, his ability to hide his identity, to double himself in a manner, becomes a straightjacket for Pluto – animating the dueling possibilities of masking, the emancipatory sense of being able to see double and having to bear the cross of seeing double – Peele is uniquely slippery about his film’s true nature. The “doubles” refract in too many directions to count, and too many for Peele to effectively analyze. They play on a gothic notion of the second-self – that we are not sovereign selves – that tellingly fuse the notions of doubling and doubled vision (explicit in Get Out) with doubled selves found in both the Gothic and Romantic horror tradition and the African-American canon. (It bears remembering that WEB Du Bois, patron saint of “double-consciousness,” was well-versed in 19th-century Gothic conundrums and conjured a sense of the mystic in his own writing).
That said, whether or not seeing and being double is primarily a benefit is left ambivalent. Initially, Abraham’s brutish, unflinching masculinity seems to awaken a similar violence in the otherwise-gentle Gabe, which would suggest that the doubles serve as the characters’ unconsciousness, aspects of the self which they have submerged deep within, fearful that – especially as African-Americans – acting according to human appetites would label them uncivilized beasts, where white people might get a pass. Early on, the film near-silently exposes the well-to-do Gabe’s own frustration at their wealthier white friends (played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss), a knowledge that caps and taints the black family’s otherwise-bourgeois attitudes.
But Gabe’s own unleashed energies, as well as everyone else’s, bespeak themes that Peele is more content to allude to than to consider, and as the film progresses, Peele accents the class implications of his screenplay over the racial implications, sometimes bending the film’s earlier thematic implications past the point where they register at all. This ambiguity has its own limits, and it leaves many of Us’ most provocative intimations the stuff of critics’ sometimes wishful speculation. Much as some African-American song forms (the tragicomic moan of the blues, the tragically non-transcendent embodiment of gospel) have been seen to vocalize attempts by the soul to escape the body, disrupting the hegemony of words which cannot adequately express the desires submerged within that body, the cruel and forbidding utterances of the doubles here seem to mock human speech patterns and the illusion of civilization. And Us seems to be conjuring its own unspeakable in that regard, refusing explanation in the writerly terms of so-called intellectual discourse.
Partially, this is because Us is not a tight, scissor-cut analysis so much as a scatter-brained act of cinematic mesmerism, its cinematic gusto hypnotically working its magic even as it deals a few sleights of hand to tether themes together in the moment more-so than when one stops to consider them after the fact. It’s more self-consciously visionary than its predecessor, almost a single-story anthology more effective than Peele’s own “Twilight Zone” reboot, and like that show in any of its incarnations, Us is more content to throw allegorical gestures at us than to unpack them. While Get Out’s sunken place was a highly specific metaphor for African-American paralysis and slavery (especially when devoid of a racial consciousness), the torturous underground routes that burrow through Us are more suggestive but less particular. They could signify the underground railroad, a libratory pathway to freedom wrought out of forgotten spaces and out of the way places. But they also suggest a world of chthonic people in rhizomatic tunnels that are undercurrents of American excess and seem to underwrite American middle-class existence itself. And one can also infer the subterranean aspects of the self, those repressed memories and untold appetites we refuse to acknowledge in “polite” society. In many ways, Us alludes to a connection between the abysses of the self (the id, the unconscious) and the abysses of the social (slavery, the American underclass) without necessarily exploring what those linkages are.
But Peele’s more exploratory, suggestive, unfinished attitude toward horror this time out – where he doesn’t cross every T and dot every I – is unleashed in the film’s final quarter, where Peele’s broken-rhythms and fractured ways blossom into full bloom. Here, the film nearly abandons skillful analysis entirely, instead emphasizing the incantatory quality of its imagery and arrhythmic editing flow to speak to realities still sublimated in the film’s narrative, reaching more specific and tragic truths than the narrative itself ever could. Truth be told, the first three-fourths of Us is little more than an (extremely) well-mounted home invasion film. In the final quarter, however, the film dismounts the constricting tightrope of narrative and seeps outward in an omnidirectional manner, metamorphing again and again. A frightening panic attack becomes a parable of paralysis and enslavement, which in turn becomes the sad, forlorn dance of a little girl lost, a child who discovered more than she was meant to know about the inner-workings of America, and who never quite put herself – no less the nation – back together again.
At this point, this messy film fractalizes, turning its balkanized internal confusion and refusal to connect its threads into a thematization of connection itself, as if the film’s very form is meditating on what it might mean to cohere in any fashion, and what the limits of superficial coherence, either personal or national, might be. Without spoiling explicitly, more and more doubles appear and enact a hand gesture that doubles as a grotesque parody of a famous (and, in the film, famously dubious) communal goodwill gesture of American communal empathy. The film suggests that these others, a forgotten underclass who claim “American” identity, seeking their turn in the spotlight, are genuinely able to enact community when middle-class Americans and their somewhat more fallacious attempts at bonding are not. The colors worn by the tethered – in this gesture, tethered not only to the normal characters but to each other – bear potentially political fruit. And there’s an implicit understanding that it would take a young, exploratory, experimental African-American child who becomes aware of collective indiscretion to lead what the film never calls a violent revolution, but has the effect of one.
Once the film reenters the fun-house, in other words, its true identity comes to bear on the preceding 90 minutes, and, more importantly, its meditation on whether a “true”, internally-coherent identity even exists, and what that identity might mean. I was particularly struck by the totally unstressed, never-verbalized fact that the funhouse in Adelaide’s past, which once bore an obviously racialized, racist countenance, has now been whitewashed into a more fantastical register. Both funhouses bear signs claiming “find yourself,” evoking the discovery of submerged truths about personal and national identity in wayward spaces not visible to the untrained eyed. The funhouse is where the film finds itself, but the modern incarnation suggests a kind of color-blind denial, as though one character’s eventual return to this place – to “find” their-self – actually represents a whitewashing of the potential to truly resist oppression; they are given the choice of settling into a now color-blind American middle-class domesticity, accepting what they were once excluded from rather than changing the system that excludes.
Rather than committing to the explicable, in other words, the film unleashes the inexplicable, narrativizing the return of what is considered inexplicable and unmentionable in mainstream America (color, class oppression), and then formalizing at a stylistic level the sense of sheer disruption this inexplicable return causes, the uncanny shiver of cosmic uncertainty festering in the American status quo. At times deliberately alienating and uniformly frustrating, the finale is a phenomenal cracked-mirror set-piece, a perverted ballet that doubles as a mesmeric act of puppeteering – both between the characters and between Peele and us – edited in a way that nervily severs narrative tendons and doubles as a critique of the sovereign self. The choice of music during the film’s literal ballet also tethers working-class African-American music to middle-class African-Americans who enjoy it but avoid its class implications, a theme submerged in Peele’s weave of ideas.
That weave, though, is less a harmonious tapestry than a crazy-quilt of references and thematic allusions that delight in showing the cracks and fissures in their own logic. (Another allusion: white rabbits, signaling Alice’s own adventures into a looking-glass image of the world; young Zora’s double, incidentally, has a crooked smile that could make the Cheshire Cat blush). In this finale, and only here, Peele’s ideal self emerges, not a myopic narrative filmmaker who embeds “themes” in plot points but a poet of images and ideas, associatively linking suggestive but elusive notions and questions in his montage, in the images of Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography, and in the fractured interplay of those shots fragmentarily stitched together by editor Nicholas Monsour. If the narrative is told in digressions, interruptions, and detours, departing again and again from its assumed point of analysis, then Peele’s images – evocative, malignant – signal a maddened untethering of narrative form, a stylistic breakage as Peele’s self-actualization.