Film

Fearful Symmetry

Jordan Peele, Us, 2019, 4k video, color, sound, 116 minutes. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o).

SOME FILMS demand a second viewing, particularly when something that is revealed at the very end makes you rethink everything that led to the denouement. The second time around, you appreciate the subtlety of certain details you either failed to notice or misunderstood. This is absolutely the case for Jordan Peele’s Us, and particularly for Lupita Nyong’o’s performance. Peele’s script and direction are very smart and often inspired—I’m not going to get into a comparison with his 2017 debut feature, Get Out—but make no mistake, Nyong’o, who can be at once precise and volcanic, holds the film together and takes it to another level of emotional complexity and power. And Peele, making the most of Nyong’o’s gifts, frames her face as it metamorphoses in an instant from terrified to terrifying in one close-up after another as the mayhem mounts.

Peele is nothing if not well versed in the language of movie horror, and the humor in his two films arises from the abandon with which he deploys it from start to finish. The pre-title sequence opens with an image of a mid-1980s living-room media nook. On the shelf next to the TV are VHS tapes of C.H.U.D., The Goonies, and, perhaps most prophetically, The Man with Two Brains. But recognizing the titles—or whispering “The Shining” to the person sitting next to you in response to an aerial view of a car bearing a nuclear family speeding along an empty mountain highway—is no protection when the horror you’ve been fetishizing invades your own home, and your surrogate movie home, where it may have lurked in secret for decades, and engages you, and your movie surrogate, in mortal combat. (As a combo doppelgänger and home-invasion horror movie, Us raises the issue of audience identification in a particularly twisted way.)

On the TV in that opening shot is a promo for “Hands Across America,” a Reagan-era fund-raising event against homelessness and hunger, for which more than six million people lined up from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Just how lame this protest was is proved in the final shot of Us, which depicts a similar lineup, but now everyone is dressed in identical red jumpsuits. By this time, we know that this red army is out for blood, and nothing less than the annihilation of their economic oppressors will satisfy them. If many great horror films are based on the return of the repressed—the id erupting from the psyche of the individual—Us is a fable about the return of the oppressed: What happens when the economic gap between the affluent few and the impoverished multitudes is too horrendous to endure? The alien invaders in Us are not from outer space or across the border: They are Americans, and the terror they bring is alive and thriving in the land we call the US.

In an interview for The Guardian, Peele mentioned a personal experience that partly inspired Us. When he was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, he often took the Metro-North Railroad from Manhattan to Bronxville. When you get off the train, you have to walk through a long tunnel. As a Sarah Lawrence alum, I too remember this route well. Bronxville is a wealthy town, and crime against students at the college, who in my day were considered weirdos no matter their race or ethnicity, was unheard of. That was probably still the case decades later, when Peele would walk through that empty tunnel at night and imagine he was being pursued, not by some white Bronxville resident who saw him as the other because he was black, but by someone who was his double. The film that grew out of that experience is not, as is Get Out, centered on racism. Rather, it is about an inescapable sense of guilt over extreme economic inequality. Why did Peele get to be a student at Sarah Lawrence when other kids he grew up with were not afforded so privileged an education? Later in Us, when the doppelgängers have come up from the underworld, one of them chokes out the accusation that her Christmas gifts were stones while her privileged double received soft stuffed toys. The opening titles of Us are superimposed on the image of rabbits, each immobile, imprisoned in its own cage; they are subjects of a giant socioeconomic behavioral experiment that is beyond their comprehension, and which, in Peele’s narrative, is already in force in the Reagan era.

Toward the end of the brief 1980s prologue, a vacationing African American family—father, mother, and six-year-old daughter—visit a Santa Cruz beachfront amusement park. Adelaide, the child, wanders away while her father is absorbed in a game of Whac-A-Mole, and down on the beach, she enters Shaman Vision Quest, a fun house with the image of a Native American in a feathered headdress above the front door. Inside, she finds herself lost in a hall of mirrors, and as her panic mounts, she comes face to face with a girl who looks exactly like her but is definitely not a mirror image, because she promptly turns her back on Adelaide and moves away. While we’re screaming (I did, and it wasn’t the only time), Peele cuts away from the fun house to jump forward thirty years. Adelaide (Nyong’o) is now married to Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and they have two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Despite Adelaide’s reservations, they’ve rented a vacation house in Santa Cruz and head for the main beach, where they meet up with their friends the Tylers (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin adolescent daughters. Adelaide’s fears are not at all put to rest by the sight of the refurbished fun house, now named Merlin’s Enchanted Forest. What’s in a name when you’ve been so traumatized that you return to your parents unable to speak, completely changed? It turns out that grown-up Adelaide’s fear is justified, because later that night standing in their driveway are four people in red jumpsuits, each accessorized with a pair of large gold scissors, which they hold in front of their chests. (Peele leaves lots of room for personal associations.) Except for their uniforms, these doppelgängers look exactly like the Wilson family and are played by the same four actors, which gives them all the opportunity to show their emotional and behavioral acting range, although none quite as astonishingly as Nyong’o.

The doppelgängers, who refer to themselves as “the tethered,” make a bloody mess with their scissors, and the Wilsons fight back with every household implement they can find. The second half of the film is extremely creative Grand Guignol, although Peele’s direction actually shows less than you think you’ve seen. When the Wilsons try to take refuge at the Tylers, they discover that their friends have already been murdered by their own tethered in a scene that recalls Malcolm McDowell and his droogs dancing to “Singin’ in the Rain” as they make havoc in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The Tyler family is murdered, as the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” segues into NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police.” (Moss has a ball with her double identity, but her role is barely a cameo.)

I hope I haven’t given too much away, and nothing could make me describe what happens when Adelaide, as every horror film heroine must do, revisits the scene of the trauma that changed her for life. Instead, I’ll get personal and tell you that when she goes down the stairs to the basement beneath the hall of mirrors, she enters a cinderblock corridor that looks exactly like the one in the basement of Reisinger, Sarah Lawrence’s theater, dance, and film building, where I, and I’m sure Peele too, spent many anxiety-filled nights.

Us is currently playing in US theaters.

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