Jordan Peele’s 2017 smash debut, Get Out, was the rare film that manages to be absurd, hilarious, and deadly serious all at once. Like an even bigger hit of that year, Black Panther, Get Out refracted a racial critique through an unlikely genre. Taking a trope from our national discussion about race—the black body—Peele deployed it literally, placing his guileless black protagonist in the path of predatory whites, encapsulating the peril and outrage of African-American history in a B-level thriller knockoff that piled layers of irony on the notion of “black humor.” Like Get Out, Peele’s new effort, Us, explores existence on two levels—the seemingly real world, and a hidden or sunken place below, where an underlying evil resides. Once again it is an evil not beamed in from some other dimension, but born in our own human one, and actualizing dire realities latent in American life. As in his prior film, Peele concocts all this in volatile mixtures of humor and horror.
Us follows the Wilsons, an upper-middle-class family comprising Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke), and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), on a summer weekend at their California vacation home. Sounds like fun, yet all is not well with the Wilsons. The problem is set forth in a prelude flashing back to a night in 1986, when the young Adelaide accompanies her parents to the waterfront amusement park in Santa Cruz. Entering a funhouse over whose door hangs a sign reading “Find Yourself,” she sees herself reflected in a distorting hall of mirrors, then bumps up against what seems to be an actual, live doppelgänger. Is this a waking dream, or has something uncanny occurred?
The sequence unsettles via a deft orchestration of creepy elements: the ground-up viewpoint of the child; an approaching thunderstorm; parental disaffection; a haunting whistling of “Itsy Bitsy Spider”; the appearance of a haggard homeless man, holding a sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11.” The result is ominous, and when we jump back ahead to the grown Adelaide, exhibiting wary reluctance to revisit that same amusement park, we share her jitters. The first half-hour of the film, setting up the weirdness to come, is near perfect; Peele makes good use of the Wilsons’ bland domestic tranquility and the happy aimlessness of their chatter; nothing important is being said because everything important is about to happen. The pacing prepares for the hinge moment, when Jason looks out the window at night and announces: “Dad, there’s a family in our driveway.”
There is, indeed. Embodying the mirroring prefigured in the funhouse sequence, the family in the drive (major spoilers coming!) turns out to be a nightmare replication of the Wilsons themselves. Their appearance—standing silent and still as statues—personifies the warning quoted from Jeremiah (“Therefore 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”), and soon enough the eerie visitors launch a brutal home invasion. Adelaide’s doppelganger speaks in a croaking, thwarted, and thoroughly evil-sounding voice; the other family doubles merely grunt and howl. At first we believe only the Wilsons are under attack, but it turns out that the malevolent doubles are part of a mass uprising of similar red-clad phantoms—calling themselves “the Tethered”—wreaking bloody havoc across the land, hunting down their human doubles and savagely killing them.
Jordan Peele collaborated in the current iteration of The Twilight Zone, and he has acknowledged a 1960 episode of that series, “Mirror Image,” as an influence on Us. There are other clear influences: The Shining; Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Michael Haneke’s terrifying home-invasion movie, Funny Games; and more than a touch of Tarantino, including throwaway comic lines and quotations from other films in the midst of bloodletting. Throw in an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, season with a hint of the classic 1960s series The Prisoner (a secret world underlying ours and run by a cabal of hidden forces), and voilà: what we get is the work of a writer-director who’s obviously a film and TV buff. At some of the most fraught moments we sense that Peele is having fun, enjoying himself in the act of making horror, as it were; the pleasure is infectious, as are the chills.
The theme of the doppelgänger has deep roots in literature, and eerie Victorian literature especially: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde; Poe’s story “William Wilson,” where a boy is haunted by a doppelganger who can speak only in a whisper; Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, where the double is a portrait that registers the protagonist’s inner moral decline. The theme has also intrigued high-art writers like Nabokov; one of his most celebrated and challenging novels, Pale Fire, paired a long poem with an even longer (and possibly delusional) commentary on it. The novelistic and cinematic uses of doppelgängers reflect their prevalence in folklore, where they often possess a malicious nature, and have lent themselves to interpretations ranging from omens of ill luck to psychology’s division of the conscious and unconscious self. All this suggests a deep hold on our imagination, and at its best Us hits with the force of myth.
It doesn’t remain so forceful. The second half of the film loses its way, partly via such obscurities as a baffling use of the Hands Across America campaign, which appears in scenes of Adelaide’s childhood and foreshadows a later image of the Tethered, hundreds of them, standing arm in arm in a daisy-chain extending down the beach and into the ocean, visually suggesting a border wall. Is Us about Trump’s America and the heartless demand to Build the Wall? Do the doppelgängers represent an indictment of a country where wealth divides its citizens into the vibrantly alive (enjoying the cushy lifestyle of the Wilsons) and the impoverished, a kind of economic walking dead? Is the movie an allegory—and if so, of what? (And what’s up with those rabbits?)
One grasps at meanings, and Peele’s attempt to sort them out involves a good deal of screen-splaining, especially in one scene where Adelaide’s double provides a miniature lecture on “the Tethered.” All in all, there’s a problem with scope and scale; Us can’t decide whether it should be a small compact thing or a big sprawling epic thing. I kept feeling it should have been an episode, Twilight-Zone-style. Rod Serling’s original “Mirror Image” depicted a woman waiting for a bus on a lonely night, who keeps catching unnerving glimpses of her doppelgänger and becomes obsessed with the notion that “two parallel worlds that exist side by side, and each of us has a counterpart in this other world.” Serling didn’t write it for any more than that, a small metaphysical and psychological novelty, and I wish Peele had found a way to keep his own conception similarly deft.
Get Out had the advantage of constantly working on two levels of meaning—as nightmare horror movie, and as trenchant meditation on racism. Us relinquishes such sturdy moorings and floats free, becoming—to use a key word from the film itself—a bit untethered.