dir: Jordan Peele
The shadow self, the dark Jungian version of our unexpressed ourselves that might have up until now lurked in the depths of our consciousness; right now, for plot reasons, comes to the fore, scissors in hand, ready to take our place.
I… am not going to pretend that I actually completely understood either the text, the subtext, the literal meaning of stuff or the allegorical meaning of what actually transpires in this horror film that starts off looking like a family under siege in their own home kind of story, and becomes something very much more complicated.
It starts in the 80s, as a young girl called Adelaide watches an ad for Hands Across America, an effort that came after the whole We Are The World fiasco to raise money for charities including homelessness. Also maybe to prove that Americans could stand up and hold hands, doing two things simultaneously. In retrospect it seems bizarre that anyone would do such a thing, but when I looked up that it raised probably around $100 million, but only about $15 million went to actual charities, it makes perfect sense.
Although, let’s be honest about this, after that, there was no homelessness or poverty in America or anywhere else for that matter, ever again, so it was all obviously worth it.
Adelaide watches this bizarre ad on the telly, and then it cuts to her and her parents going down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, to celebrate her birthday with candied apples and games of chance, as her parents bicker. She observes her parents from behind, but observes all the people around her, including a strange chap holding a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11. This number and this wordless character keeps cropping up throughout the flick. I had to look it up, because I’m a godless heathen, and it talks about the Lord God visiting evil upon a bunch of people for no good reason.
Young Adelaide wanders into a hall of mirrors which is never not creepy. Unfortunately for her, something worse than just seeing an unflattering angle of yourself occurs: she sees someone who looks just like her, but it’s not her reflection.
Plus, like all shadow selves or any person’s reflection, it’s EVIL, clearly.
And it haunts her all her life. As a grown up, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) seems to have been deeply traumatised by her encounter, but eventually recovered enough to have a family and live in relative comfort. From wherever it is they usually live the family are travelling back to near Santa Cruz in order to enjoy the long weekend or something. Everyone else is just doing their thing, but Adelaide is apprehensive.
Her husband Gabe, fellow Black Panther alumnus Winston Duke (who played the scene-stealing M’Baku, leader of the Jabari tribe), is a goofy enough chap but seems nice enough. Her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is checked out and surly because she’s a teenage girl growing up in a middle class milieu, and Jason (Evan Alex) is a little mask-wearing weirdo, but other than that they’re fine, this is fine. Only Adelaide seems out of sorts.
When Gabe starts indicating that he wants to get some, Adelaide goes into barely restrained freak out mode, expressing her deep, deep misgivings about being back in Santa Cruz and how a black cloud hangs over everything here because of her experiences as a child. That prompts Gabe to say everything’s fine, calm down, blahdie blah blah, until a family appears in their driveway.
There are other signs and portents leading up to this, but none that you could predict unspoiled. When they meet at the beach with some friends (white friends, I might add), the strangest part is that the couple is played by Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men and Handmaid’s Tale fame, and Tim Heidecker of multiple instances of awkward comedy fame. Moss’s character especially spends every scene expressing her loathing for her partner or asking for or drinking more booze, which is, what it is. I think she may have decided she was going to be Elizabeth Taylor from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? just for laughs.
You may ask yourself why this “family under siege” movie would need other characters. Well, it’s a horror flick, so there need to be more victims. Many more victims.
When Adelaide and Gabe and the kids are confronted by a group of people who look just like them, except they wear red jumpsuits and brandish gold scissors, it’s understandable that they are a bit confused. The doppelganger of Adelaide’s, who I’ll call Red here just to differentiate, we are pretty sure must be the duplicate she saw as a child, confirming that her memories aren’t deranged. Red explains (somehow), through a tortured voicebox, which makes it sound like she can only speak when breathing inwards, that they, this family in red, are the Tethered.
It is torturous listening to her. Almost as torturous as it must have been for her to do that voice. There’s no mistaking the differences between them. With minimal makeup differences, there’s never any confusion as to which one is speaking, because of the alien expression Nyong’o creates on that face, to contrast it with Adelaide’s helpless terror.
When they are asked who they are, Red’s first response is “We Are Americans.” How very patriotic.
Red tells a story about every good thing that happened in Adelaide’s life resulting in its opposite in Red’s life, two lives lived in parallel, but also with inverted results. Adelaide’s life, and everyone on the surface’s life is mirrored in some subterranean realm where the Tethered suffer so that the privileged may continue in their privilege. But the Tethered want this no more. They wish to sever the link, to become untethered, and seeing as this is a horror film and they’re all carrying scissors, you can probably guess how they intend to manage this great unravelling of America.
If there is some intellectual merit to pondering the meaning of the shadow selves, of these Others, rising up to take the place of their favoured doubles, would it be churlish and ungrateful of me to say that making it literal and explaining it somehow through practical terms and literal structures diminishes the intended impact and effect? I don’t think it’s possible to overthink what they’re going for here, because it’s definitely meant to be something far more complicated than a slasher film or a survival thriller. It’s just that, Jordan Peele is incapable of allowing for a sweeping cinematic moment or a punch line to go to waste. It’s not in his nature.
When the primary “good” family somehow manages its escape, with nods to Haneke’s Funny Games and Spanish horror flick The Orphanage, and try to make their way to their (white) friends’ lakeside mansion, we see that this premise is about to be exploded outwards in a way that doesn’t really help the film, but does lead to some supremely chilling scenes with Elizabeth Moss doing some of the most terrifying face work you’ve ever seen unless you’ve watched Handmaid’s Tale in which case you know it’s just par for the course. Elizabeth Moss with a pair of scissors and a maniacal grin on her face is more terrifying that a million Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining trying to axe their way through any door that you’ll ever see.
Thus, and here I would argue is where I really get into spoiler-heavy territory beyond just discussing the basic what’s what of the plot, it is revealed that it’s not just Adelaide and her family suffering at the hands of their shadow selves: it’s all of America. It’s a national epidemic of shadow selves in red jumpsuits and clutching scissors rising up to kill their oppressors, so it’s not just the African-Americans suffering this time.
And you might think – how did these moronic, non-verbal cannibalistic human-like underground dwellers organise in their millions the production and distribution of millions of sets of jumpsuits and scissors? You’d be asking the wrong questions. Sure, they had to go and make the underworld literally a place filled with escalators and rabbits, like the delusional imaginings of a schizophrenic, but if you start wondering how they’ve been feeding the rabbits or maintaining the subterranean escalators for so long, like at least since before the mid-80s, you’ve missed the point.
I actually don’t think the allegorical stuff necessarily works as well as intended beyond providing strong visuals, because most of our motivation is meant to be coming from a family trying to survive and not be killed by another family that looks just like them. And that you can do easily enough, especially if you’re a director as talented as Jordan Peele.
The strength of Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as either character is the backbone of the entire film beyond the jump scares and the fake outs, or the reversals of expectation or the striking manner in which Peele uses composition or perspective to amp up proceedings. She manages to show a whole array of facets to both characters and make us care about whether they survive or not, in spite of the apocalyptic craziness going on. It’s just a shame that it is in service of a cheap twist in the end, telegraphed multiple times throughout the flick, which at the very least keeps it on track with earlier horror classics, but, goddamn. I saw this in a cinema with M. Night Shyamalan (not really) and, upon the revelation at the end, he spat out his popcorn and screamed “that twist is some grade A bullshit”.
And, for once I’ll admit he wasn’t wrong. It wouldn’t have been worthy of the Twilight Zone reboot that he currently is in charge of, and it cheapened the flick again for me, rendering it ever more unbelievable even as it strove for tying up loose ends and explaining everything that didn’t really need to be explained.
I love Jordan Peele’s movies generally and the incredible instincts he has for both drama and comedy, but that doesn’t mean I find everything he does completely successful. Us is visually striking and incredibly well made, incredibly, but in some ways, on first viewing, it felt both overthought and underdone.
7 times I loved the joke about N.W.A. and trying to call the cops on an Alexa-like device called Ophelia out of 10
“Is this some kind of fucked up performance art?” – you tell us, you’re part of it - Us