Doppelganger tales, or tales of the identical other, are as old as cinema itself. From Vertigo, Fight Club, to Twin Peaks, film is rife with stories centered on characters struggling to confront the demons within themselves. Jordan Peele’s new film Us began as a simple desire to put his own unique spin on the doppelgänger tale. On the surface, the film is a home invasion horror thriller wherein the Wilson family becomes the victim of a brutal attack carried out by sinister versions of themselves. After a fun day on the beach in Santa Cruz where family matriarch, Adelaide Wilson (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) spent her childhood years, she and husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), along with two children Zora (Shahadi Wright) and Jason (Evan Alex) return home for the night to only be confronted by a mirror family out for blood. These “evil” Wilson’s are dressed all in red jumpsuits, left-handed gloves, and are wielding golden scissors. Welcome home indeed.
Before diving further into the chaos and terror that ensues, let’s go back in time for a minute to Adelaide’s childhood. One fateful night at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, Adelaide’s father wins her a Thriller tee-shirt by testing his luck at one of the gaming booths. Soon after, her father becomes distracted and Adelaide is able to wander off on her own. Just at the edge of the shoreline, she encounters a house of mirrors with a sign reading “Find Yourself” and she goes inside. Adelaide begins to whistle wondering through the hall of mirrors, but something whistles back. Following the sound to what appears to be yet another mirror; young Adelaide comes across a reflection of herself whose back is turned to her. Frozen in terror, the reflection slowly turns around to reveal a wide-eyed grinning version of Adelaide who seems very much alive.
The film cuts away without revealing the confrontation between Adelaide and her doppelganger. In that brief time that she had wondered off, her parents realized that something had happened to their daughter. But what happened though? She was no longer speaking and seemed disconnected. Adelaide’s mother is certain that something traumatic must have happened. They send her to a child psychologist in hopes of getting their daughter back to the girl she once was. Thirty odd years later and it would appear that Adelaide turned out just fine. She has a loving husband in Gabe and two children that seem like the perfect nuclear family. She has no trouble speaking certainly, and who doesn’t have a traumatic childhood experience they can’t quite explain?
This is a good time to remind you, dear reader, that many things appear fine on the surface. It is what is bubbling beneath that Us is interested in exploring. Adelaide is wary about returning to her childhood home. Gabe has to talk her into even going to spend the day on the beach with their friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker). She can’t seem to shake a foreboding feeling that something terrible is about to happen. This culminates when her young son Jason wonders off down the boardwalk out of sight much like she did long ago. Jason finds an eerie man standing perfectly still with his arms outstretched, blood dripping out from under his clothes. Adelaide swoops little Jason up and they hurriedly go back to the house where everyone, the Wilson’s included, assume they will be safe.
Unfortunately, home is where the horror is. In a film crammed with ideas, they all somehow seem to be tied to the idea of duality. The Wilson’s go home to literally be attacked by themselves. After the fun really kicks in, the film plays out like many home invasion films do. The evil version of Adelaide, also the matriarch, goes by the name Red. She speaks in half whispers and spasms. It really doesn’t take that long for the Red’s to overpower the Wilson’s and invade their home to not much surprise. Yes, everything is going according to the home invasion playbook until Peele decides to pull the rug out from under the audience and point a mirror right back at them.
Peele has created a film that will be talked (and argued) about for decades to come. Often times a film can be weighed down by its lofty ambitions, stuffing too many half-baked ideas that never become fully realized. Us manages to be the rare film that seemingly has more ideas that it does running time minutes but never feels exhausting. This works because of the intentional dual nature of the film. It can be viewed as a terrifying home invasion doppelgänger film with no subtext necessary. It’s taut, suspenseful, bloody, scary, and the characters on all sides of the action are believable and sympathetic. But on another level, it is a study of class, race, and a cautionary tale of living in a self-absorbed society that is way more interested with the smug self-satisfaction that comes with the appearance of being a “do-gooder,” rather than actually doing good.
Through a Bond villain worthy exposition, Red (also Lupita Nyong’o) explains to Adelaide that they are not doppelgängers from Hell or some other dimension. Instead they are the remnants of an abandoned United States government program that were left to live in old underground tunnel systems, eating things like raw rabbits to survive. At one point when asked who they are in the film, Red calmly replies “we’re Americans”. Considering this country’s horrific history of medical experiments on people of color, her reply combined with the history of Red and the other doppelgängers should strike a knowing, sickening chord in the stomach of every viewer.
The Tuskegee experiments are but one example that should spring to mind. From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service lied to African-American men to study the effects of syphilis untreated. Hundreds of black men were told they were receiving free health care and being treated for nonexistent health issues like “bad blood.” Even after penicillin was found to treat syphilis in the 1940s the men were never given any and instead treated like subhuman lab rats. This is the example most people (hopefully) know about. This type of medical testing on black people in this country goes back to at pre-Revolutionary War, however, and is only one sickening part of the American black experience that my white mind can’t even fathom.
This information about Red and the other “untethered” doppelgangers begs an important question: are the “shadow selves” the true villains of the film? I understand when a ghoulish individual is attacking you with a pair of golden scissors that they are indeed a villain in that moment but in a larger context, are they the villains of this story? They were taken against their will, forced to live underground shadow-mimicking the lives of the people they were cloned after, and then abandoned when the government no longer had any use for them. Treated like animals and forced to fend for themselves to survive, is it no surprise that one day they would rise up and fight back? And if they aren’t the villains, who are? Are the villains of the film the other side of the mirror? Is it a shadowy government? Or are the villains the actual Wilson family that we have been rooting for the entire time? All puns aside, is the villain us?
The truth is, we all have the potential to be the hero and the villain of our own story. All of our actions on this planet have larger repercussions. All too often, we as a people are our own worst enemy. We refuse to chase after our dreams, open our minds to new possibilities, and take responsibilities for our actions. There truly is no one on this earth who can do you more harm than yourself. On the flip side, no one else is ever going to save you from yourself but you either. Adelaide Wilson can tell us a thing or two about survival. But I bet Red could tell you more. What the audience does not learn until the end of the movie is that we have unknowingly been rooting for “the villain” the whole time.
Going back to that first night in the 80s where Adelaide confronted Red for the first time as a child. We never got to see the end result of what happened there. There are subtle clues throughout the movie (notice “Adelaide’s” lack of rhythm during a car singalong), but this reveal alone should demand a second viewing. At the very end of the film as the Wilson’s are driving away together, son Jason and mom Adelaide share a knowing look before the film takes us back to that fateful night in the house of mirrors. Except this time, knowing everything we do about the “untethered,” the audience gets to see the above ground perspective of all the people at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and the mirror image of the “shadows” mimicking these actions from underneath in the tunnels.
Young Red actually heard young Adelaide’s whistling coming from up a long flight of stairs she had never previously seen that appears to be what the government workers had used as an access tunnel. Meeting her counterpart face to face as a child all those years ago, Red knocked Adelaide unconscious, stole her Thriller tee-shirt, and took her place. Adelaide never saw her parents again. She had been tricked and left underneath with the shadow people. This is why Red, mistaken for Adelaide, would not speak after that night. She wasn’t terrified of anything, she just didn’t know how. The clones were not given the ability of speech by the government upon creation. This is shown throughout the film when the shadow versions of the rest of the Wilson’s communicate in a series of primal grunts aside from Red, or rather the real Adelaide, herself.
Wait? Didn’t the rug already get pulled out from underneath the audience once already? Yes, but I promise the end reveal totally works and completely changes the story. Who we thought was Adelaide was actually a grown up Red, a clone of a child that saw her chance to live the good life and took it. She left all the others behind underneath with the actual human Adelaide, left only with her “hands across America” tee shirt she was wearing underneath the Thriller tee her dad had just won. Some could call this selfish, but it is hard not to understand why she left. Red learned how to speak; passed for Adelaide married a nice man named Gabe Wilson, and had two beautiful children living a seemingly happy suburban experience. Adelaide never knew joy again. She grew up in the horrors of the abandoned tunnels, eventually rallying the rest of the shadow people until they viewed her as a god, and set forth planning an uprising of apocalyptic proportions that almost worked.
Speaking of that “Hands Across America” tee shirt, for anyone that didn’t grow up in the 1980s, “Hands Across America” was the ultimate virtue signaling do-gooder fad of 1986. The idea was that if one sent in ten bucks, each donation would pay for an individual’s spot in a hand holding chain stretching from sea to shining sea. The televised stunt managed to raise $36 million to combat hunger, homelessness and poverty. The only problem is that only a little less than $15 million went towards fighting hunger, homelessness and poverty. In the hashtag era of today where a social media post is often mistaken for a genuine act of civil disobedience the symbolism should be loud and clear: people want to appear that they are helping way more than they actually want to help.
By the end of the film there’s an argument that nobody comes out as a clear winner. In a perversion of “Hands Across America” the “untethered uprising” rose up on Adelaide’s orders, killing all of the “real” versions of themselves and taking their place above ground, out of the shadows. But Red murders Adelaide and escapes with Gabe and the kids, making all of the shadow people stand silently linked arm and arm in a cynical inversion of “Hands Across America” waiting for marching orders that will never come. In Jordan Peele’s America, even when you show up hand in hand to help there’ll be no one to lead you.
If you have seen Us once you really should go see it again. This was a film that was made to see twice. It is the type of movie from the type of filmmaker we are lucky to get once or twice every ten years. Jordan Peele proves that Get Out was no fluke without sacrificing any of his vision. Whatever your thoughts on Us there is no way to not applaud this. He does so many interesting things that could be broken down into their own essays. I could write an entire piece on Elizabeth Moss and Tim Hiedecker as traditional black characters in virtually every horror film you have ever seen. Winston Duke is perfect as Gabe Winston. Every single thing worked for me. America is a dark, scary, brutal, yet funny place. And it inspires people like Jordan Peele. Sometimes good art is enough.