‘Us’ and the double consciousness of a nation
Peele holds up a mirror to our past and present, and what we see is absolutely terrifying
Directed by Jordan Peele
Screenplay by Jordan Peele
Starring Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Anna Diop
Rated R, Now Playing
In his 1903 cornerstone essay on race “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “double consciousness” to describe the experience of living as an African-American: a “sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” In his latest project, Jordan Peele turns this idea on its head and implicates all of us, demanding the audience to confront the shadow selves we have forgotten and neglected. In doing so, Peele not only proves that he’s a radical visionary and storyteller here to stay, but also proclaims himself as the next great auteur of American cinema, one in line to inherit the mantle of “master of suspense.”
Us, like our most terrifying nightmares, begins as a flashback. We see the film’s central protagonist Adelaide Wilson (played masterfully by Lupita Nyong'o) as a young girl watching her distracted father indulge in carnival games at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Wandering away from the crowd, she stumbles upon an abandoned funhouse with a large neon sign beckoning her to enter and “Find Yourself.” Find herself she does, quite literally — among the multiplied reflections in the mirrors surrounding her is someone who looks just like her but is decidedly not a reflection. The rest of the film can be viewed as the struggles of an adult Adelaide, now with a family of her own in tow, to come to terms with what she saw down in that funhouse, to understand and reckon with a past that she desperately wants to forget.
When the present-day Wilson family finally enters the story, it is with a birds-eye shot of their car driving through the lushly green Santa Cruz wilderness. This imagery, along with the repeated visual motif of reflection and mirrors, deliberately calls to mind the opening of The Shining, the example par excellence of the horror canon upon which Peele meticulously assembles his film. In The Shining, the Torrance family’s getaway to an isolated hotel goes terribly awry when the patriarch Jack begins having strange visions that slowly morph into violent delusions. Peele’s decision to open his own film with this reference foreshadows the central development of Us. The Wilsons’ vacation will soon take a turn for the worse when they find themselves confronted by menacing clone-like figures hell-bent on literally hunting them down. Just like The Shining, Us is about a family mortally threatened by surreal manifestations of the deepest, darkest parts of themselves.
But Peele takes this idea even further. The Us of the film is double, just like the film’s doppelgangers; it refers both to the “us” of the Wilson family, and to the broader “U.S.” that is the country most of us call home. In that way, Peele’s film can be read as an explication of the double-consciousness of America itself, a nation that has conveniently chosen to forget and escape its tainted, troubled past and, in doing so, has neglected half of itself. Just like Adelaide then, we too are due for a violent reckoning. Us is nothing less than an allegorical documentary of Trump’s America, an investigation of the rifts, divides, and walls that separate us from the people who are just like us. It’s no accident, then, that Peele revisits the sweeping green imagery of The Shining with an incredibly appropriate modern twist in his chilling final scene.
Peele’s decision to revisit the horror genre for his second film is unsurprising, not just due to the nature of his message but also because the genre is one that he clearly has mastery over. Peele understands the Hitchcockian lesson that suspense isn’t blowing up a bomb at a dinner table; rather, it’s telling the audience that a bomb will go off under a table in 15 minutes and reveling in the juxtaposition of their agonized anticipation against the characters’ own ignorance. Peele eschews conventional jump scares (for the most part) in favor of slowly developing moments of amplified tension, delicately playing the camera to the audience’s expectations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene where Adelaide’s husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), confronts his doppelganger on a jittery boat in the middle of a murky lake at night, a scene that pays homage to the original suspense blockbuster Jaws. An incredibly haunting score and exceptional use of editing bring everything together — Peele clearly knows the value of cutting away from a shot of built up mystery (like the back profile of a bloody man standing on a beach, or that of the young girl in the funhouse) before giving too much away.
Peele’s greatest strength is his ability to deftly balance these elements of terror against equally well-crafted instances of comedic relief. In Peele’s first film, Get Out, this was embodied by the character of Rod Williams, the best friend of the film’s protagonist Chris who asks the police for help investigating a conspiracy to abduct black people and turn them into sex slaves. The same mind that produced that memorable scene is clearly at work in Us, and one of the film’s most noteworthy moments comes when a digital voice assistant mistakenly plays a certain NWA song in a punchline that will certainly make you hate yourself for laughing out loud. The result is a perfect blend of comedy and horror that will leave you laughing just as often as it will leave you anxiously clinging to the edge of your seats.
Ultimately, it is the little unexplained details that offer subtle clues to the film’s layered mysteries and mark out Peele’s creative genius, both as a writer and a director. Consider, for instance, how an early scene depicts Adelaide eating strawberries for lunch while the rest of the Wilson family indulges in burgers and sodas, offering us character development while also foreshadowing one of the film’s most important plot points. Or how the sign on the funhouse changes between the flashback and present day, conveniently losing all traces of its originally racially coded and offensive subtext. Or how the rabbits in the film keep multiplying, a clever historical nod to Malthus reminding us that often the greatest problems we face are, quite literally, of our own making.
Critics and audiences alike will certainly attempt to measure up Us against Peele’s wildly successful and attention-grabbing debut film Get Out. But there’s hardly a fair comparison to be made. Us is more expansive and more ambitious, the type of film that can only be made by a director who has already established himself and his style. It retains the mythology of Get Out (the “Sunken Place” is literalized as a system of underground tunnels) yet also resists any attempts to cleanly map the allegorical narrative onto our own life in a simple, straightforward way. The ending, rather than offering us any tidy answers or explanations, displaces and redefines the central conflict of the film in a way that will leave you struggling to understand what it all meant long after the credits stop running. But that’s exactly Peele’s point in making a film that acts as a mirror to reveal the darkest, most uncomfortable truths of the world we live in. Watching Us is a dizzying, disorienting experience — just like your worst nightmare.