Fifty-nine years ago, a particularly interesting episode of “The Twilight Zone” dealt with doppelgangers. Rod Serling, the creator of the series, explained to a Dutch television network in 1960 that the idea for the episode, titled “Mirror Image,” came to him when he was waiting at an airport and was rattled by the sight of a person across the hall whose back was turned to him. “[He was] my identical height, wearing the identical topcoat and with a briefcase of identical cowhide. I kept staring and staring, with this funny ice-cold feeling that if he turns around and it’s me – what’ll I do?” Now it’s Jordan Peele’s turn to answer that question with his new film, “Us,” which is inspired by the “Twilight Zone” episode.
Peele gained fame as a comic in the excellent sketch series “Key & Peele,” but for the past two years he’s enjoyed the reputation of being a first-rate director-filmmaker. “Get Out” (2017), which deals with the fears of black Americans in the face of white liberals, was a success story in every way. With a budget of $5 million, it grossed a quarter of a billion dollars, garnered critical and audience praise, and won an Oscar for its screenplay. The film contributed significantly to the comeback of the horror genre and also stirred a broad debate about race in America.
In “Us,” Peele again dishes up a cinematic allegory, but with a far larger budget and greater artistic freedom. The scope and the ambition have been extended to encompass additional aspects of American culture.
After becoming the first African-American to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Peele said he was upset at not having made a horror film like those that inspired him. That was the germ of the idea for his second movie, “Us.” “I’m such a horror nut that the genre confusion of ‘Get Out’ broke my heart a little. I set out to make a horror movie, and it’s kind of not a horror movie,” Peele told Rolling Stone in a cover-story interview.
The film opens in the quiet coastal town of Santa Cruz in 1986. A mom and dad and their little daughter go to a beach fair, but the outing ends with a mysterious, jolting trauma the girl undergoes in a hall of mirrors. Thirty years later, the girl, now a grown woman, returns to Santa Cruz as a restless wife and mother. The moment she – Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”) – arrives in the beach house, she’s overcome with negative gut feelings. Her affable and innocuous husband, Gabe (Winston Duke, “Black Panther”) wants only to enjoy the idleness. But Adelaide’s instinct is unerring. One night, four mysterious and disturbing figures appear outside the house; they look exactly like the couple and their two children. – “It’s us,” the boy says – though something about them is a bit off. They’re wearing red overalls and carrying gilded scissors, but that’s not what’s unsettling about them.
This point of departure enables Peele to pay homage to the action movies, thrillers and horror pictures he grew up with, notably in the 1980s. The emphasis is on the enemy that’s lurking in the house, but also on the atrocities of slasher movies, along with innumerable other references. Since the invention of the Smartphone, I’ve turned to Google after almost every movie I’ve seen, to check on one detail or another. “Us” is a tsunami of references and gestures that sends viewers scurrying to movies, series, music and also history, philosophy and the Bible. In an era of films rife with nostalgia, Peele stands out favorably because he doesn’t press the nostalgia buttons to stir consoling memories. On the contrary.
“Get Out” was more troubling than frightening, but “Us” generates effective fear. Peele promised to make a genuinely scary movie, and he’s fulfilled that promise. He has a noteworthy ability, precise and measured, to keep viewers on edge across two hours, all the while navigating among different currents of the genre. He accomplishes this largely with the aid of well-done diversions that combine horror and comedy in the spirit of slasher movies, with the parents and the kids gradually turning into a well-oiled machine that’s compelled to skewer everything in its path.
Peele does not resort excessively to manipulative editing to achieve surprise and fright, and has no need to. When the monster is not a monster but looks (approximately) like the protagonists, a slow, almost creeping camera movement is sufficient for the director to create a feeling of terror. Modern life invites the camera to encounter tenuous figures and disturbing reflections everywhere – in mirrors, windows, screens and telephones.
Below the expected layer of horror that transforms every reflection into a threat lurks even more disturbing horror, which continues the conceptual line of “Get Out.” This is the existential horror that draws on Freud’s notion of the “uncanny.” In his well-known essay on the subject, Freud discusses the discomfort that arises at the sight of something very familiar, such as a human face, to which an element that is foreign to him has been appended. That’s the basis of many horror films, but when it comes to doppelgangers and is done elegantly, as Peele does, the effect succeeds in clenching and twisting the stomach. A compelling performance by Nyong’o, and to a great extent also by the three actors alongside her, and of course by Elisabeth Moss as the trashy girlfriend, goes hand in hand with the film’s truly disturbing moments.
A comparison between Peele’s two films creates the feeling that he is unable to work in several directions simultaneously. Though the horror in “Us” is more intense and more refined than in “Get Out,” the narrative of the first film was tighter and sharper. “Us” is a more ambitious film, and though its efforts to deliver a complex allegory are successful, it pays a price in the form of gaping holes in the plot. Peele often makes it clear in the picture – at times through his characteristic humor – that he is aware of the flaws in the internal logic of the narrative. That’s fine, but it’s a problem that is likely to bother scrupulous viewers.
The result is a less coherent and trenchant statement than “Get Out,” but that has advantages, too. “Us” also offers an opening to a social discussion, and despite Peele’s declared intentions, the content is amenable to broader interpretation. The film can be seen as an allegory on class relations, with the doppelgangers asking us to look at the human price exacted by our way of life in the sated West. Perhaps it’s actually the anxiety of the middle class, which only luck keeps from poverty; or possibly it’s fear of the “other” in the more general sense – those who are afraid of migrants, minorities and whoever. I prefer to focus on the image of the mirror as compelling us to look inward, only to discover that we are unable to know ourselves, for subterranean currents of the unconscious activate us without our understanding how and why.
Peele refuses to sew up everything neatly, offering instead fertile ground for any number of interpretations. Even so, it’s interesting to see the covert but sophisticated take on racism, achieved by the very choice of a black family as the protagonists of a horror movie, and without making a fuss over it. “The Cosby Show” is considered a milestone of representation precisely for its nonchalant depiction of an affluent black family, and Peele does the same with the Wilson family in the horror genre.
If “Get Out” presented non-threatening horror and, accordingly, was a more complete film, “Us” forgoes a precise narrative in favor of more effective horror. And as befits a good horror movie, it doesn’t make do with scaring viewers for two hours – sustaining the tension elegantly and with humor – but leaves them with disturbing food for thought. Not for the faint-hearted.