Monday, March 25, 2019

Us

There's a scene about halfway into Jordan Peele's Get Out that to me sums up the genius and horror of that movie. It's wordless, and begins with a series of seemingly disconnected images: a crowd seated before a gazebo; a photograph of Daniel Kaluuya as the film's lead, Chris; Bradley Whitford, as the genial father of Chris's girlfriend, making strange hand gestures; people in the crowd holding up bingo cards. Then the camera pulls out, and the disparate pieces come together in a startling crash. Whitford is auctioning Chris off to a crowd of fellow white people. Later in the movie we'll learn more about what this will entail and why this abominable practice continues, but it's in this moment that Get Out spells out its terms, establishing stakes and villains, as well as its wicked, take-no-prisoners sense of humor.

There is no moment in Peele's follow-up to Get Out, Us, that delivers the same sense of revelation with a similar elegance. If Get Out was an arrow aimed straight for the heart, Us is firing in all directions. This doesn't make it a bad filmit is, in fact, a rich and heady stew, anchored by a stunning double performance from Lupita Nyong'o. But it does make it messy, in a way that a director who wasn't riding high off a genre-defining success like Get Out probably wouldn't be able to get away with. I found myself thinking that Us might have worked better as a miniseries, not only to give its various storylines and characters room to breathe, but so that it could do more work to spin out and elaborate on the various symbols and recurring images it keeps dropping into the narrative. What is the significance of Hands Across America, for example? What does Jeremiah 11:11 mean? What's with all the rabbits?

You can see this tendency in the way the film takes its time getting started, layering one prequel scene over another. First we get a title card informing us that beneath America lie thousands of miles of tunnels, some of unknown purpose. Then we watch a string of commercials on an old-fashioned TV (in whose screen is reflected a young black girl), including one for the 1986 anti-poverty project Hands Across America. Then we see the same girl (Madison Curry) at a fairground on the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. She wanders onto the beach and into a hall of mirrors, where she encounters what appears to be her double, and the screen smashes to black. Then the opening credits run as the camera slowly pulls out from a wall lined with cages containing rabbits. It's only after all this that we arrive in the present, following a family car driving towards Santa Cruz for a summer vacation. Each of these non-sequitur moments introduces an image or recurring motif that eagle-eyed viewers will have to look out for once the story proper gets started, though the roster still isn't complete. The devilishly sharp fabric shears that have become the film's calling card in its promotional materials, for example, aren't introduced until the end of the first act.

With such a weight of symbolism, there's a strong temptationespecially for people like myself, who tend to approach pop culture in an analytical wayto try to "solve" Us. But the truth is, for every explanation I can come up with for the film's oddball worldbuilding, there will be half a dozen others just as compelling and worth thinking about. And even my best ideas about the movie fail to account for all of its details and evocative imagery. While I was writing this review, I came across a twitter thread in which the incomparable critics Samira Nadkarni and Aishwarya Subramanian were lamenting their inability to get to the bottom of the rich symbolism in the novels of Helen Oyeyemi, and it strikes me that Us, and perhaps Peele's filmmaking in general, possess the same quality. Like Oyeyemi, Peele has an approach to horror that focuses less on chills and affect and more on weirdness, which is in turn underpinned by a keen intelligence and a sharp political awareness. Like Oyeyemi's novels, what Peele has produced in Us works less because of one's ability to read it "correctly" as because of its overall effect. What follows, therefore, isn't meant to be a definitive reading, but a record of my immediate reactions to the filmwhich may mature and develop as I get more distance from it.

The family in the car are the Wilsons: mother Adelaide (Nyong'o), who is confirmed as the little girl from the prologue scene with a flashback that reveals that in the wake of her unspecified ordeal she was diagnosed with PTSD, father Gabe (Winston Duke), teenager Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and pre-teen Jason (Evan Alex). They've arrived at a vacation house that used to belong to Adelaide's mother, but quickly reveal that in all their years of staying there, Adelaide has never allowed her husband or children to go to the nearby beach. Even when she agrees to make an exception, Adelaide is anxious, and nearly has a breakdown when Jason wanders off for a few minutes. Later she confides to Gabe about her experiences, but neither he nor we are able to understand what frightened her so much about her encounter. That conversation is cut short by the arrival of the Tethered, a family of doubles of our heroes, clad in red jumpsuits, armed with the aforementioned scissors, who quickly overpower the Wilsons.

Adelaide's double (referred to in the credits as Red, though she is never named in the film even though the other doubles all have names; this will turn out to be significant) explains, in the first of several monologues, that she and Adelaide have been linked since birth. She married her husband not because she loved him but because he was Gabe's double. Her children are doubles of Adelaide's children, though like their parents they are strange and sinister, characterized by alarming tics and perverse pleasures. While the Wilsons have lived lives of comfort and safety, the Tethered have been relegated underground, forced to suffer and do without, and driven mad by their deprivation. Now they want to sever their connection, cutting through the Wilsons' flesh to do it. When the family escape to the home of nearby friends, they find the same carnage there, and the TV news eventually reveal that the same uprising has occurred throughout the country.

In other words, Us is a film about the violent rise of the (literal) underclass. This is a trope that tends to have a racialized undertone, as does the home invasion genre that Us initially presents itself aseven when their villains are white, both are rooted in the anxieties of white society over the danger posed by an oppressed but ever-present non-white population. When the first trailer for Us dropped, many people commented on the significance of not only centering the film around a black family, but placing them in this genre, in which people who look like them are often the villains or nonexistent.

In the actual film, race feels a great deal less important than class. Or, to put it more precisely, it's the intersection of the two that feels like the film's ultimate focus, the fact that the Wilsons are not just a black family but one that is safely ensconced within the American upper-middle class. The early scenes in the movie do a lot to stress the family's financial and emotional securitynot only the fact that they have a nice car, a nice summer house, and can afford to go on nice vacations, but that these are familiar environs to them, where they are part of the community. And yet Us also subtly reinforces the sense that the Wilsons are out of place.

It's notable, for example, that outside of the flashbacks to Adelaide's past, the Wilsons are the only black people in the movie. When the scope of the Tethered's attack becomes clear, the only other victims we see are white. This includes the Wilsons' friends and neighbors, Kitty and Josh Tyler (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters. From our first glimpse of them, it's clear that these are not very impressive peopleKitty complains that she could have made something of her life if she hadn't gotten pregnant, and Josh wastes no opportunity for douchy behavior. And yet the Wilsons, particularly Gabewhom Duke plays with a deliberately exaggerated nerdiness, pitching his voice into the nasal range and constantly readjusting his glassesare clearly in a semi-friendly competition with them, openly envying their boat, their car, and their smart house. There's a constant tension between the Wilsons naturally belonging in this world of affluence and security, and their need to prove that they belong by living up to the example of people like the Tylers.

Throughout the film, there are hints of the Wilsons' conflicted relationship with blackness. When the Tethered appear in the Wilsons' driveway, Gabe tries to drive them off by adopting a tough-guy, "street" persona that not even he seems to believe in, but which he clearly thinks of as the universally understood signal not to mess with him. Adelaide, meanwhile, immediately calls 911. In the context of this story, she's obviously right to do so, but it seems clear that the film is calling back to the multiple instances we've seen documented in recent years of black people having the police called on them, simply for going about their lives.

It's a context that changes the Tethered's claims against the Wilsons, moving them from the general to the specific. "You could have taken me with you", Red says to Adelaide of their childhood meeting. When we get to see the underground lives of the Tethered, they are a perverted, wordless parody of the kind of affluence the Wilsons take for granted. In one of the film's tour de force scenes, we rewatch young Adelaide's trip through the fairground as it was reflected in the underworld. Above ground, Adelaide's father wins her a t-shirt, smiling warmly as he presents it to her. In the underworld, his smile is a deranged leer, a shadow play bereft of triumph or happiness. He is performing a staple of middle class respectabilitya father gifting his child with something she doesn't need but nevertheless wantswith nothing to back it up. The Tethered describe themselves as linked to their doubles, but what shows up on screen feels more like a cargo cult. Just as Gabe keeps trying to keep up with the Tylers in the hopes of becoming them (regardless of whether they are actually worth emulating), the Tethered are imitating all of us, including the Wilsons, hoping that by mimicking the forms of capitalism they can gain a foothold in it. Until, that is, they decide simply to take it.

It's interesting, in fact, to observe how the Wilsons' relationship with their doubles differs from that of anyone else we see. The Tylers are murdered within minutes of their doubles invading their home. But the Wilsons are toyed with, in ways that leave them avenues for escape and resistance. The film ascribes this to a particular sadism on Red's part"we want to take our time" she tells Adelaide during their first meeting. But the film also implies that there is something special about the Wilsons, perhaps their liminal status conferring upon them some degree of protection. It's notable how little tension there is over whether the entire family will survive, even though in a film with so many main characters you'd expect at least one to buy it in order to establish proper horror bona fides (despite trailers that seemed to promise otherwise, Us isn't a very scary film; its horror is more existential than visceral, and there is in fact very little viscera on display). Even Gabe, whom we'd normally expect to dienot only because that's the role husbands and fathers are usually relegated to in family survival stories, but because he is so clearly unsuited to the new, apocalyptic reality established by the Tethered uprisingmakes it to the end, and not as a newly minted badass. He never fully accepts the irrevocable loss of normalcy that has occurred around him, and even towards the end of the film he keeps trying to play by the old rules. "You don't get to make decisions anymore!" Adelaide snaps at him when he suggests holing up in a Tylers' house, waiting for help that clearly isn't coming. And yet he lives.

The reason Gabe livesthe reason the entire Wilson family livesis Adelaide. In a film with the theme of doubling, you'd naturally expect confused identity to eventually crop up. As the family kept being separated and reunited in their scrambles to escape the Tethered, I was constantly on my toes for a switcheroo, for one of them to be killed and replaced by their double. It turns out, this has already happened. The reason we never find out Red's name is that her name is Adelaide. This is also the reason why she's the only Tethered who can talk, and the one who possesses enough shreds of sanity to come up with the plan to rise above ground and take over. It's the reason why Adelaide had PTSDnot from a single traumatic incident, but from a young lifetime of abuse and deprivation. The woman we've been rooting for it the little girl Adelaide met in the hall of mirrors, who kidnapped her double, imprisoned her in the tunnels, and took her place.

It's a revelation that comes in the film's final minutes, and I found myself wishing that the film had given it more time to percolate, for its implications to be considered (for that matter, it might have been interesting if we had gotten a sense that Adelaide has always known what she is, as opposed to the implication that she had suppressed this knowledge until the events of the film trigger her memories). On the one hand, there is the obvious point that there is no meaningful difference between ordinary people and the TetheredAdelaide has lived a normal, respectable life above ground, while Red was driven to the same madness and violence as her compatriots who were born in the tunnels. This is a common trope of stories about a sinister Otherno matter how much the narrative and characters insist otherwise, there never seems to be any meaningful difference between humans and Cylons, or replicants, or Hosts. The "us" of the film's titlewhich conjures immediate associations of us vs. themis in fact a way of reminding us that the enemy is indistinguishable from ourselves, and that we're only defining them as the enemy because it serves our purposes.

At the same time, it's impossible to avoid the implication that the Wilsons survive because Adelaide came from underground. Because her legacy of trauma and abuse has lingered with her despite the privileged life she stole and then built for herself. The fact that it is her children, but not her husband, who take up their mother's attitude, who fight for their lives with determination and ruthlessness, suggests that Adelaide has passed along her unease and anxiety despite not being consciously aware of them. This is seen as both a good and bad thing. At the end of the movie, we're not certain whether Adelaide is a monster. By which I mean, not a monster from horror movies, an Other who can be killed without remorse, but a human monster, the sort of person who takes what they want and then kills the person they stole from when they show up to proclaim their injury. In the film's final moments, Jason, who has witnessed Adelaide's final triumph over Red, regards her with suspicion. He isn't sure what she is, not because he thinks there's been a switch, but because he's starting to realize that he never knew her at all.

There's a lot more to Us than I've written here, and in fact I worry that by summing up my reading of the film I have reduced it something far less strange and baggy than it actually is. There is, for example, the fact that Red's plan includes, after the Tethered have killed their doubles, creating a giant human chain in homage to Hands Across America, whose significance escapes me entirely (others have written compellingly about this device). There are the rabbits that hop freely in the tunnel where the Tethered live (one of them is rescued by Jasonperhaps suggesting that in him and his generation lies the possibility of rapprochement with the Tethered?). And Red's explanation for the existence of the Tethered, which brings up government experimentation and control, feels at once deeply significant and completely beside the point. This is, as I said at the beginning of this review, a messy film, and any attempt to solve it will inevitably leave things out and miss important details. But that is also the film's genius. There is no artist in Hollywood who is doing the kind of things Peele is doing (well, maybe Donald Glover), and if what he delivers isn't always as sharp and instantly comprehensible as Get Out, it is also never less than fascinating.

11 comments:

lisze said...

This review has made me wonder if Jordan Peele has read/drew any inspiration from Kelly Link's "Stone Animals."

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's been ages since I read that story, so I don't remember its details very well, but I was thinking today that as well as Oyeyemi, Link is another author whose writing Peele reminds me of. She definitely also uses horror as the framework of her storytelling, but usually occupies that framework with something much weirder and harder to pin down. Unlike Peele (and Oyeyemi), Link's writing doesn't have as obvious an undertone of political consciousness and social rage, but the style is very similar.

Hob said...

I'm a bit confused that you say that you can't think of any significance for "Hands Across America" in the movie... and then immediately link to two pieces that very clearly describe what it might be. I would think if you thought those were totally off base, you wouldn't call them "compelling", so...?

Betsy Abbott said...

Thanks for this. I had similar feelings about the film. It wasn't as scary as I expected, I thought it was slow at times. It's a good film, but I didn't feel as much praise for it as others. Though when I got out of the theater... it was like I was in another world.

lisze said...

"Stone Animals" is about a family who move to a new house (partially in hopes it'll repair their marriage). Then, the items the family brought with them start being wrong or "haunted", as if replaced by exact replicas. Body parts and even a full person can also be "haunted." And the house is surrounded by rabbits. https://electricliterature.com/stone-animals/

Unknown said...

I'm trying to think of other movies/stories in which the the protagonist commits a monstrous crime yet still remains deeply sympathetic, and coming up with nothing. Anyone have some candidates?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I would say the thing that distinguishes Us is less that its heroine does something terrible and more that she clearly doesn't regret it. There are a lot of movies about repentant bad guys seeking redemption, but Adelaide isn't sorry, and when she's given the chance to make things right with Red, she instead chooses violence (though you could argue it's not an entirely conscious choice since she doesn't realize what she did to Red until after she kills her). I'm sure Us isn't the only film to tell a story like this, but I am struggling to think of others, mainly because it's still fairly uncommon for films to place members of the underclass at their center. The reason we sympathize with Adelaide is because we know how few options she had, and most movie heroes aren't in that situation.

Justin Howe said...

Do you think the tethered as their presented are meant to be read as inherently broken or as people broken by their circumstances? Part of the what I'm feeling in my reaction and seeing in a lot of the fan theories around the movie seems to hinge on that question.

Justin Howe said...

That "their" instead of "they're" will haunt me to my grave.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

That seems like the fundamental issue raised by the Adelaide twist (which is why I say I wish the film had given it more time to breathe). As I write in the review, on the one hand, the fact that Adelaide is able to live a normal life, and is clearly a loving wife and mother, suggests that there is no fundamental difference between the Tethered and regular people. But on the other hand, she has clearly been shaped by her past, and this makes her capable of things that other people - Gabe and just about every other victim of the Tethered - can't do.

It's an excellent metaphor for trauma and the generational effects of poverty and suffering. Adelaide is a monster because she's human, because she did what she had to in order to escape hell, and she's still willing to do terrible things to hold on to her good life. That doesn't make her fundamentally different to humans, just someone who has lived in different circumstances.

Phillip Smith said...

I took the twist to mean that Adelaide always knew that she was a Tethered and that does a better job of explaining several things, such as her lack of hesitancy to kill, her knowing immediately what Red was, her strange moment with the Tethered version of her daughter when she seemed really empathetic to her, and her PTSD with Santa Cruz.

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