What Is Wrong With ‘Us’?
I am just going to come out and say it. I am not sure about Us. The new and eagerly anticipated horror from Director Jordan Peele is hot off the heels of critically acclaimed Get Out. The plot and execution of this horror garnered more plaudits and awards than is strictly usual. Understandably then, there has been much excitement. Peele’s knack for delivering cold, hard or loveable characters and throwing out rib-ticklers in crisis moments is in full force. The depth and exploration of both diegetic and non-diegetic music are brilliant as usual. And yet, the whole event left me feeling somewhat lacklustre.
In telling a story that has a compacted internal world, it is hard to know how deep to go. What to reveal, and when? What Us does is attempt to create this world while leaving a bucketful of questions and no real answers.
The Premise, You Ask?
It is 1986, young Adelaide (Madison Curry and Ashley McKoy) visits Santa Cruz with her parents on vacation. Wandering off for 15 minutes, she encounters a strange hall of mirrors, ‘Find Yourself’ emblazoned above the door. Once inside, she ironically stumbles across another little girl who is her exact doppelganger.
Fast-forward to present day, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is all grown up with a husband and two delightfully modern children in tow. Headed to a holiday home near sunny Santa Cruz. Their family friends pretty much represent the bourgeois American moneyed ‘elite’, replete with two sassy teenage daughters who you instantly hate. The parents seem to detest each other too, in that classic middle class white waspish way—all “pour me a drink, I hate you.”
Against the better judgement of Adelaide, they take a trip to the beach in Santa Cruz. She is on edge the whole time. Upon returning home, they are set by some folk who look suspiciously like them. Chaos ensues.
The thing to say here is that the movie is not terrible. In many ways, it is actually pretty good. It treads the lines of B-movie slashers with house-invasion tropes a-la Funny Games and Strangers, whilst interjecting some seriously funny one-liners right when peril is at its most perilous. The family deciding who is to drive the escape vehicle (kids included) by their kill count is especially memorable. It is smart, sassy, very funny and has a fantastic soundtrack. In a scene where Adelaide faces down her doppelganger Red—the deconstruction of Luniz ‘I Got Five On It’ is incredible. Instantly recognizable yet, when sampled in pieces, revs up the tension beautifully.
The Issue Is This
Throughout the narrative, it feels like you are constantly craning to make connections. What is happening to the characters and the genesis of the action. The reasoning behind the doppelgangers’ existence—and their violent revolt—feels unexplored and tenuous. The rabbits, pictured both during the opening titles, only reappear at the end of the film. Could it be a metaphor? The doppelgangers are abandoned lab animals.
Reference to coincidence has a similar washy appearance. In the beginning, coincidences are clumsily verbalized. Once the bloodbath begins in earnest, all mention ceases. What is the point? Both feel thematically crowbarred into the underlying message.
What is this underlying message? Peele has expressed interest in the Jungian theory that we all have a dark side to our being. One that we ignore or shut away. Perhaps creating a narrative where darkness grows, eventually taking us victim.
The twist is an interesting addition—perhaps opening the door for a sequel of sorts. The method for Red’s revenge, however, seems plain insane. I mean sure, if I’d spent all that time underground, I would probably be insane too.
I must warn you, this next part contains spoilers.
Throughout the film, I found some of the exposition infuriatingly vague. And yet, seeing Peele as an interesting and intelligent creator, I am going to attempt to theorise. If only to hope that there is some master plan at work.
As we discover late on, Red is the victim of a classic switcheroo and really belongs in the ‘real world’. Our ‘Adelaide’ did the dirty on her double, trapping her and taking her place. Red has now bonded with the doppelgangers and wants to emancipate them from being ‘other’. I would be interested to see, on the second watch, if her vocabulary is that of a young child.
When her son Jason (Evan Alex) witnesses her killing Red and making noises like the doppelgangers, it sets his mind going. You can see this at the end of the film. It made me think: If he is a product of a clone of his mother, he is part of that world too. As is his sister. How far can this go?
Us Vs. Them
Red reveals that the doppelgangers were created by a shadowy (pardon the pun) organization, in order to control people. Upon discovering you cannot clone the soul—therefor cannot control people—the program is abandoned.
So why were they all underground acting out what was happening above ground? My theory is that while they cannot control people through their doppelgangers, they are still connected. Without the soul, doppelgangers are left to mindlessly copy actions, and the lack of reasoning behind it drives them mad. Killing the counterpart gives autonomy—clearing a path to create personal meaning.
This does throw up one big question: Why are the doppelgangers able to even do anything that their counterparts aren’t doing? Where does mimicry end and free will begin? Also, what happened to Adelaide to make her subservient when the switch happened? It could also be Red’s teaching that leads them to gain some freedom of will from the privileged above, though this is really not explored and very problematic.
Once each violent murder has been committed, Red’s army join the chain in a sort of gruesome ‘Hands across America’ rehash: Hands Across A Murder Scene. As Red explains, they are “sending a message.” This message is built into the telling use of this charitable 1986 rally. Conceived of as a gimmick to raise money for the poor and homeless, the whole thing was a bit of a bust. The underlying theme could be using doppelgangers to represent the lower classes. The moneyed (literal) upper classes reject and ignore those less fortunate, to their detriment.
References to 11:11 mimic the theme of doubles, but also carves out a foreboding section from the bible.
“Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
This is practically the mission statement of the doppelgangers, but could also be a reference to the suffering that they have endured. They have been left soulless and loveless. That would feel like abandonment in the face of evil, I’m sure! It is a nice touch, though one that has been done countless times in Cinema. It signals ‘ the end is nigh’ vibes, without ever having to read the name-checked passage.
As the final shot lingers, you see a chain of red jumpsuits, helicopters hovering overhead. They Adelaide hand family have escaped, but what happens now? How far does this thing spread? Does everyone have a debased doppelganger? And is this the extent of Red’s plan? Or just the beginning. Has her death thwarted this?
Finally (and this is just wishful thinking) could young Jason—who seems to have his mother’s number—represent an awakening? As he begins to see the full picture, something only he holds, does his older self still have a part to play? Personally, I would love to see a film that includes the older Jason. One that takes the boy and grows his awareness.
There are many smaller questions (like, where do the doppelgangers get their gloves, scissors and jumpsuits from?) one could ask, but I will leave those to your discerning mind.
Peele has professed that these last two films could be part of a larger scale. A ‘quartet’ of movies, developing an ongoing theme. I would love this to make more sense as time goes on. Peele’s creations have the makings of cult classics. Perhaps I am staring at pixels in a much larger image. At the moment I feel banished to the darkened underworld, lacking a language to make sense of the actions we bear witness to.