Doppelgangers duel in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

By Tristen Harwood

This new film is less about inequality than it is about horror’s subversive eye

Us. Universal Pictures

“There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental US. Many have no known purpose at all,” reveals the opening statement in Us (2019), Jordan Peele’s new philosophically meandering, satirical horror. The statement indicates both the shadowed, conspiratorial tone of the film and Peele’s cinematic approach, in which surfaces are rippled with clues that point to the dark, sinister elements of everyday life that are suppressed to maintain dominant American social structures.

In Get Out (2017), Peele’s triumphant debut, the young black protagonist was introduced by his girlfriend to her white family, and, after tolerating their veiled (“well-meaning”) racism for some time, discovered to his terror that the family was auctioning black bodies to the white people who lived in their unnerving neighbourhood. The audience was also made aware that the protagonist’s mother was killed when he was a child, and the unresolved trauma of his mother’s death is what makes him a susceptible victim in the family’s racist plot.

The ingenuity of Get Out came, in part, from Peele’s ability to link genre tropes, such as bodily possession, and an individual’s past trauma to racist social structures. Entertaining and elegantly constructed, Get Out resonated with concepts like W.E.B Du Bois’ double consciousness – the “two warring ideals in one dark body”, the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” – and what Aileen Moreton-Robinson has identified as white possessive logic: the colonising imperative to transfigure black and Indigenous bodies and land into property for white possession.

The theme of childhood trauma surfaces again in Us, but here it draws on the enduring gothic evil-twin motif and manifests as physical doubles rather than through bodily possession. The action follows the Wilsons, a middle-class black family consisting of the caring but haunted mother, Adelaide (Lupita Nyongo’o), a jocular father, Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children, teenage Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and her little brother Jason (Evan Alex), who are stalked by their “tethered” vengeful doppelgangers – all played by the same actors – while on summer vacation.

The Wilsons’ aggressors are jarring, abject versions of themselves, communicating in bestial yelps and wails, except for Adelaide’s double, who manages granular, wheezing speech.

The film begins with a flashback to a night in 1986 at a Santa Cruz beachside amusement park. In this tightly choreographed scene a family of three move in a triangular formation, while a low camera angle renders the young Adelaide’s environment large and daunting, a technique used throughout Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) to create anxiety-inducing spaces. This is the first of many references Peele makes throughout this film to Kubrick’s horror classic, also about a haunted family.

One of the film’s strengths is the intense relationship between narrative and mise en scène. Peele’s scenes have an unsettling vitality, which he builds by mixing lightness with terror. A young Adelaide watches on with her mother as her father plays a carnival game. Suddenly the mood switches from family fun to something sinister, as Adelaide wanders off alone and has a terrifying experience in a house of mirrors. Like the physical double, mirroring is a recurrent theme in Us, adding another dimension to the evil-twin motif and the unresolved personal grief it stands for.

The opening sequence overflows with mysterious signification, references to The Shining and other popular culture, Jeremiah 11:11 and other obscure symbols. This serves to intensify the suspense, as the viewer cannot be sure where horror lurks or what cryptic elements will be mirrored later on in the film.

Details recur, such as trembling white rabbits and a Black Flag My War T-shirt featuring a knife-wielding gloved hand. The T-shirt alerts those familiar with the band to the cynical view of American consensus society that operates within the film, while the image on the T-shirt is mirrored by the single gloved hand of the film’s villains. The sheer volume of symbols and references tint the film with a tone of conspiracy that the narrative can’t quite carry. At times the abundant references in Us can feel more like detours.

After the opening flashback, Us cuts to the present. In a scene that is almost serene, Gabe is joking as he drives the family car. The sun warms the car interior and the Wilsons are at ease, making their way to their summer vacation house. The radio-friendly Luniz’s “I got 5 on it” (1995) plays, and the Wilsons sing along. It’s an idyllic moment that gives the audience a breather from the film’s suspense

Along with his repertoire of dad jokes, Gabe is characterised by his insensitivity to the grief haunting his wife. In spite of Adelaide’s objections, he insists on a beach trip with another family, the Tylers. Echoing the nuclear family structure, the Tylers are the white, wealthier and slightly dysfunctional version of the Wilsons. Reclining at the beach, the rosé-sipping mother, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), and insouciant father (Tim Heidecker) only vaguely conceal their distaste for one another, while their twin teenage daughters – another reference to The Shining – seem immature compared to Zora. Gabe envies the Tylers’ material wealth, but the other Wilsons merely tolerate them.

An allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) unambiguously sets the horrific tone for the beach. Adelaide pleads with Gabe to leave their summer home, because it’s bringing back bad memories. She confides in Gabe, revealing the source of her childhood trauma, but he’s dismissive. “I don’t feel like myself,” a distressed Adelaide says; “I think you look like yourself,” Gabe mockingly replies. However, Gabe’s ability to ignore his wife’s pleas is impeded when their murderous doubles storm their vacation home, ready for revenge. If suffering is the intimate side of grief, horror is its outward feature, which is how Adelaide’s grief manifests once the Wilsons’ – and the other characters’ – doubles set upon the beachside town in a deadly rampage.

Drawing on the haunted-house motif, Peele mines the tight angles of the Wilsons’ and Tylers’ homes for sudden frights and protracted shivers. There’s a violent scene in the Tylers’ home that alludes to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) and its notion that all white, middle-class families deserve to suffer, simply because their “idyllic” lives are constructed from the suffering of others. Set to the sound of the classic N.W.A track “Fuck tha Police” (1988) the scene is evocative and resonant beyond the typical horror score. For the most part, Peele draws on a trusted horror film music, using high dissonant violin sounds, recalling Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. He even gives Luniz’s mellow 1995 track a suspenseful orchestrated treatment.

In film and literature, shadowy doubles rupture the threshold between self and other, pushing protagonists into crises of identity. Adelaide must face her unnameable grief, embodied by her double (Nyong’o does an exceptional role of rendering a ghastly inversion of Adelaide). Yet Us lacks the psychological depth of other narratives in which protagonists experience duelling identities, such as Persona (1966), Black Swan (2010) or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella The Double (1846). Peele also sidesteps past and ongoing injustice; the reasons for the doppelgangers’ murderous intentions are explained away with little scrutiny in Us.

Peele toys with his audience. The boundary between the idyllic surface of middle-class American life and the subterranean shadow-place that helps maintain it is quickly ripped away in Us. He is adept at distorting margins and imbuing everyday objects with perturbing qualities. In Get Out it was a tea cup and spoon, in Us, there’s the scissors and red coveralls that take on sinister meaning set outside their customary context. At times it feels as though the profusion of intertextual references and asides are adding to the mythology surrounding the film and the figure of Peele, rather than the film itself.

Peele’s Us isn’t so much an interrogation of contemporary social issues and family grief as it is a comment on the fact that horror films have always dissected and provided insight on everyday life and the shadow-places that sustain it. In Us, horror surfaces from the shadows with frenzied clarity.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, now living in Naarm (Melbourne).

Us. Universal Pictures

Read on

Cover detail of Andrew O'Hagan’s ‘Mayflies’

There is a light

Andrew O’Hagan’s ‘Mayflies’ and what might endure from our irresponsible but spirited youth

Scott Morrison in the sheds after the NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the North Queensland Cowboys in Sydney, July 25, 2019

Birth of a larrikin

The disguised rise of Scott Morrison

Black Summer at Currowan

Lessons from Australia’s worst bushfires

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best