Roundtable Review: Us (2019)
At times, Jordan Peele’s Us reminds me of Donald Glover’s music video, “This is America.” Both implement blackness to put forth broad critiques of American society. Glover’s piece compares America’s fatalistic gun culture to its fetishism of and aversions to visualsonic blackness. Us, however, projects xenophobia in the U.S. onto its visually and sonically textured black surfaces, such as the bluish tint of black skin at night, the dark complexions of its lead actors, and the subterranean threat of the film’s doppelgangers, who live as “shadows” of the world above. What Glover and Peele share is an interest in the reflections of America on blackness—from the simultaneous rhythms of black music and gunfire to the fear of shadows that leads inexorably back to the self.
Like Frantz Fanon’s description of the “solely negating” position of blackness, the monsters of Us exist for, and only in relation to, their human counterparts. Notions of blackness and the Human are foregrounded in Peele’s first film, Get Out, but they register differently in Us. While Get Out examines how negrophobic and negrophilic impulses overwhelm black bodies, to me, Us channels a latent desire for the end of the world through a prism of visualsonic blackness. What starts as a preternatural home invasion explodes into a dystopian event that begins and ends with the fractured image of a black girl. It’s a dense film, however, so these are just some cursory thoughts from my first viewing.
Us opens with a flashback to 1986. A young Adelaide (Lupita N’Yongo / Madison Curry) and her family are visiting Santa Cruz Beach. She wanders off to a funhouse near the shore. Inside, she walks through dark corridors that funnel into a hall of mirrors. It is here that she has her first encounter with her doppelganger, Red. The lurid blue lighting emphasizes Red’s teeth as her lips curl into a devious sneer. A close-up of Adelaide shows her eyes wide with terror. The shallow focus and position of the lighting puts an accent on her African features—the shapes of her nose and forehead, the contrast between the whites of her eyes and the black-and-blue gradations of her face. Visual perception, as it pertains to how we distinguish ourselves from others, is splintered by the many mirrors and complicated by the deep, enveloping shades of black. We find out later that there are chambers of other doppelgangers—The Tethered—beneath the funhouse, all of whom mimic the actions of their hosts above.
Music adds a dimension of blackness to Us that layers its critique of Americanness. In the present, we meet Adelaide’s family, the Wilsons: Gabe (Winston Duke), is the laid-back dad, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), a rebellious teenager, and Jason (Evan Alex), a mischievous kid. As they drive to Santa Cruz beach on vacation, Gabe turns on Luniz’s stoner hip-hop joint, “I Got Five On It,” which he introduces to the kids as a “dope song.” The song adds a sonic element of blackness that is offset later by an orchestral rendition that replaces its boom-bap drums with pizzicato strings and French horns. This new version plays during Adelaide’s fight with her double, Red. Red uses ballet moves, learned through a lifetime of mimicry, to dodge and deflect Adelaide’s desperate strikes. “Classical” instrumentation and dance, which are conventionally aligned with elite social status, are sonic extensions of the “master’s tools” that clash with Luniz’s urban grooves and the variegated cinematographic tableau of dark skin.
While at the beach, the Wilsons meet up with the Tylers, a better-off but dysfunctional white family. Unlike the Tylers, the Wilsons are quickly slaughtered when their likenesses invade their home. Kitty Tyler (Elizabeth Moss) uses her last breath to have her virtual assistant call the police, but instead it plays NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” This comedic twist would come across as a simple gag if not for the many references to the prison system within the film. After all, the doppelgangers refer to themselves as “The Tethered,” a name that evokes the ankle monitors worn by people on parole or house arrest. At one point, Red tells Adelaide to “tether herself” by handcuffing her wrist to a coffee table. Tethering represents the parasitic link between the people above and below the ground, which can be transposed to the relationship between freedom and captivity, or power and subjugation. (Short digression: Saidiya Hartman covers these dynamics excellently in Scenes of Subjection, noting the legal declarations of shared affection between captor and captive and the impossibility of empathic relation to the slave.)
The most salient thread in Us is its subversion of the fault lines of difference in the U.S., with its home-invasion narrative being directly relevant to racist anti-immigrant rhetoric at the White House. Many horror scholars relate the monstrous to the resurfacing of something repressed within, and Peele frames the dread of the other as projection. Blackness is utilized to bring these ideas to a serrated edge in a way that I feel is evident in the form of the film. I’ll have to watch it again to get a real handle on the how and why.
It may be destined that anytime I see a new Jordan Peele film for the first time, it is in less than ideal circumstances. I saw Get Out in a totally empty theater (minus the person I was with) at like 10 AM on a weekday. And I saw Us in a totally packed, loud, disruptive theater on a weekend evening. Neither viewing experience – total silence or total chaos – was particularly enjoyable for me, but in spite of that my initial response to these two films has been an overwhelming sense of “Fuck. Yes. THIS is how you make a horror movie.” At this point I’m convinced that if I had to watch Peele’s third feature in the bowels of hell, I’d still find a way to enjoy the film.
Although comparisons to Peele’s first film, Get Out (2018), are inevitable here, I’m more interested in thinking about how Us continues a history of double/doppelganger horror. Without getting into too much plot synopsis, the film’s basic premise revolves around the ‘tethered’ - doppelgangers that live in underground tunnels and (not fully successfully) control/puppeteer their copies above ground. There is at least one overt reference to C.H.U.D (1984), but I think there are also connections to films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978), Dead Ringers (1988), Black Swan (2010) and (maybe a bit more tenuously) films that expressly deal with cloning, like Moon (2009) or (the much less prestigious) The Island (2005). Of course, Peele is taking the basic tension of doppelganger horror – that something that is both like us and unlike us can exist, and can possibly replace us – with social commentary on race, class, American exceptionalism, education, motherhood, and probably a million other little things I didn’t even pick up on my first viewing.
For me the most interesting intertext is probably David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) – the creepy children ‘copies’ that aren’t quite right, a fearful and isolated mother, and shades of reproductive horror that are both literal and metaphorical. The mundane horrors of motherhood – fear of your child being snatched, for example – are exacerbated in Us through the trope of the ‘other mother’: the surrogate that would not only steal your child away, but that would replace you in the process. The long history of black women acting as surrogate mothers and wet nurses to wealthy families both during and after chattel slavery is brought to bear here. The real twist of the knife (or scissors, in this case) is when we realize that [SPOILERS] Adelaide has been the doppelganger all along, having switched places with her ‘surface self’ years and years ago. This revelation forces the spectator to reconsider our fear of the ‘other mother’ and her brood of the ‘tethered,’ which we quickly realize extends far beyond the wife, husband, daughter, son unit. The ‘untethering’ - a metaphorical snipping of the umbilical cord – isn't an invasion, then, but a revolution.
I’m not sure what else to say about Us just yet. After one viewing, a quick scan through the internet’s many fan theories and arguments about the film, and a couple days to reflect on what I saw, my most pressing thought is that I need to see it again. And again. And again.
Unsurprisingly, from Jordan Peele, the writer/director of 2016’s critically-acclaimed and award-winning Get Out, his follow-up, Us has A LOT to unpack. I’ve seen the movie twice now (both times under what I’ll charitably describe as less-than-ideal theater experiences) and I still don’t have a lot more than some half-formed ideas of what’s going on beneath the surface. And, to some extent, I think that’s by design. I say this as no slight to Get Out, which I love more every time I watch it, but the subtext is pretty text-y in that film. That’s a big part of what’s so bold and thrilling about the movie – that it unapologetically says things that need saying about the type of white supremacy that many (white) people either don’t recognize or just don’t like to talk about. But Us seems to be tackling more complex ideas about class and race, xenophobia and the Other, and the monstrousness that all of us may carry within ourselves, and it’s doing so on a much larger scale, with a much larger scope, and threading it within a far more intense viewing experience.
So, what I’d like to do is focus more on Us as a horror film, and a masterful one, at that. I’ve said before I don’t consider myself a horror fan, and while that’s mostly been true, I’ve been getting more and more into the genre over the last few years. Where Peele excels is in creating and sustaining a sense of palpable dread and inextricably linking it to a locale, so that it just permeates it in every shot. This begins with the opening scenes of Us, first flashing back to Adelaide’s childhood in 1986 and the always creepy Santa Cruz boardwalk. Even after leaving the carnival funhouse and its inherent creepiness, the grown-up Adelaide (Nyong’o) seems to carry the trauma of that experience with her in her long silences and the way Peele keeps the camera on her. Much like the beginning of Get Out, the unease of the protagonist, and their constant watchfulness, sets the viewer on edge before their fear is validated.
Part of the reason that works is Peele’s patience as a filmmaker. Aside from the opening flashback and its suggestion of the horror to come, there’s nothing immediately visible for the first third of the film for us to be afraid of. And when those moments begin to ramp up – first in a scene on the beach as Jason, the son, comes across a figure standing completely still, with blood slowly dripping from his hand, and later as we (and they) first encounter the Tethered standing still and silent at the end of the driveway – it’s that motionless silence that make us tense up. I think part of why it works – and why Peele pulled off a similar feat in Get Out with Georgina and Walter – is that it puts the audience in the position of the leads. We know there’s something wrong with what we’re seeing, but it’s impossible to articulate what it is.
And then, just as suddenly, and in a departure from Get Out, things escalate very quickly. The attack on Adelaide and her family’s home transforms the film into a terrifying home invasion movie. And just when we feel like we have a handle on that, it swerves into something like a zombie movie, as the threat the Tethered represent becomes far bigger and more all-encompassing. In both of these sequences, Peele stages the action with the perfect balance of sudden explosions of violence and slow reveals of the next threat (cartwheels and handstands have never been more terrifying). Peele also punctuates the horror with humor, and while it feels forced, at times, it does help to regulate the rising tension.
But it’s the climax of the film that sticks in my mind the most. As Adelaide faces off with her double in the tunnels beneath the boardwalk, Peele demonstrates that, along with his strengths at both meticulous plot construction and social criticism, he’s also an amazing visual filmmaker. The fight is as much a dance as it is a fight to the death, and the violence is primal, animalistic, graceful, and efficient. The movements are set to an incredible arrangement of Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” and the camera and performers swing in and out of darkly lit rooms together. It’s somehow both deeply unsettling and impossible to look away from, and genuinely impossible to know just how it’s going to end. And, really, that’s a pretty solid summary of Us, overall.