Jordan Peele’s Us (2019): A Hall of Mirrors
If Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) belong to the same universe, the Untethering is then perhaps a desire to escape the Sunken Place.
When Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) makes a confession of her childhood trauma to Gabe, she looks at her own reflection in the mirror-like glass window. It is an act of looking out instead of looking within, of projecting instead of introspecting and, thus, betraying the act of confession itself. Here is a cue that the ‘black cloud’ that she claims hangs over her head signifies something more shadowy.
It is interesting to understand the etymology of the word ‘mirror’. It derives from the Latin ‘mirare’ – to look at. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in its earlier senses, it also meant ‘a person deserving imitation’ and ‘a crystal for magic’. The same roots are also shared by the word ‘mirage’, an illusion. Us (2019) plays with mirrors to underscore the idea of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, a real self as opposed to a reflection.
The traumatic event as described by Adelaide transpires in a hall of mirrors in 1986. When her parents consult a psychiatrist, for she no longer seems herself, she observes them through a mirror. And Peele pays his regards to the genre of horror when another character, looking at her reflection in the mirror, is surprised by a reflection in the background, even if for comic relief.
The film opens in the year 1986 when a young Adelaide (Madison Curry) watches a television commercial about Americans – Good Samaritans – standing hand in hand to fight hunger. We later see her wearing the hand-in-hand T-shirt when she goes to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk with her parents. Peele here plays with motifs of the fairy tale as the apple-shaped-lollipop-eating Adelaide is lured into a hall of mirrors that bears the sign ‘Find Yourself’ and whose décor resembles a forest.
When the Wilsons arrive at their summer home in California, Gabe (Winston Duke), the father, cracks a ‘knock-knock’ joke with his daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). ‘Who’s there?’ she asks. ‘You.’ This innocuous exchange is telling of the source of terror. It lies within, à la Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Jordan Peele takes it a step further and instead of creating a duality within, he externalises the horror using doppelgängers.
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Soon, the Wilsons’ house is visited by their doppelgängers. Red’s (Adelaide’s double) narrative, when Adelaide asks her want they want, again takes on the tone of a fairy tale when she says, ‘Once upon a time, a girl had a shadow. The shadow separated…’ and Red goes on to describe the miserable lives of these speechless shadows which are a coarse imitation of those who live overground. The ‘real’ selves live comfortable lives, marry well, have healthy children and eat delicious food. The shadows, on the contrary, survive on raw rabbit meat, which takes us back to the title sequence which shows innumerable caged rabbits. The choice of rabbits is significant as they multiply exponentially, thus providing sufficient food for generations of the oppressed shadows. Their quick reproduction, a doubling, is reflective of the idea of doubles in the film.
These doppelgängers manifest the best and the worst qualities or talents of their other selves, but in an exaggerated, inverted way. ‘They’ are same as ‘us’, but different. For instance, Zora is an aspiring athlete; her double Umbrae runs like Bolt. Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) gets a minor facelift or Botox; her doppelgänger Dahlia exaggerates this vanity as she stares and stares at herself while putting on makeup. During the Renaissance, it was believed that humans have the ability to either rise to the level of angels or fall to the level of beasts. The choice between this duality exists within us. The shadows embody the latter and, in doing so, also make physical and real our deep-seated fears and apprehensions about ourselves. So, if Gabe has poor eyesight, Abraham is nearly blind; Jason is a pyrotechnic, but his double is a picture of what can go wrong when you play with fire.
Us (2019) is riddled with several Easter eggs and references to popular culture, leaving it open to multiple interpretations. For instance, in the scene at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in 1986, Adelaide’s father wins her a Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ T-shirt, which she immediately wears on top of her clothes. Her mother remarks that Adelaide is scared of the video and tells her husband, ‘That shirt better not give her nightmares.’ The ‘Thriller’ video shows Jackson transforming from an ordinary lover into a grotesque version of himself, which hints at the theme of dichotomy in the film. The single glove that the doppelgängers wear can also be seen as a nod to Jackson’s iconic single glove. It is important to note that Jackson, too, was an embodiment of dualities: black man/white skin and iconic singer/notorious paedophile.
The tragedy of Us (2019) is that it is burdened with the expectations of socio-political commentary, even though it is, in itself, a sublime amalgam of the home invasion and apocalypse horror sub-genres, one which does not rely on aliens or ghosts or monsters. People will walk into the theatres expecting a commentary on racism after Get Out. Red’s response to Adelaide’s question, ‘Who are you?’ – ‘We’re Americans’ – already has a lot of critics and fans equating ‘Us’ with ‘U.S.’ and the idea that the oppressed communities are as entitled to the American Dream as the white upper class. The reference to Jeremiah 11:11 and the large-scale carnage also makes this an apocalypse-horror film. Hints of Shaun of the Dead can be seen in Peele’s use of comedy in the most terrifying situations, and he remains consistent in doing so after Get Out. When the Tyler family is killed and the Wilsons sit at their dining-table, eating Fruit Loops, they are suddenly struck by the thought that if both the families have doppelgängers, more could be lurking somewhere. They all look up in dread, anticipating someone to attack from above. However, the scene cuts to them gawking at television news about the mass murderers.
Comedy, more specifically satire, serves to reveal tension and the grotesque underbelly of life without really probing or solving them. Horror gives a release to the emotions generated by the grotesque. Both genres build tension to release it strategically. When Gabe witnesses an interminable line of the doppelgängers standing hand in hand, he mutters, ‘It’s a fucked-up performance art’. The sinister human chain is bone-chilling, but Gabe’s remarks draw uncomfortable laughter. This works because Peele takes the viewer to the extreme and then pulls back suddenly, as though asking them, ‘Do you understand/see now what you have been blind to?’ In Get Out, he deploys the same mechanism in the end when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is strangulating Rose (Alison Williams), and a police car appears at the same moment. It’s a compelling scene, one where you almost want to talk back at the screen, because for a minute, you know that the black man will get apprehended for attempting to kill a white woman, even though he has been innocent throughout.
In Get Out, the Sunken Place is an expression of frustration for people who are marginalised. It is a trance-like state wherein black victims of hypnosis are trapped when their bodies are taken over by white people. The consciousness of the marginalised host remains in the Sunken Place, conscious but powerless. In Us (2019), Red demands an Untethering. She laments that there are copies of the body, but not the soul. Peele has stated that he has planned a quartet of horror films, two of which are already out now. If Get Out and Us belong to the same universe, the Untethering is then perhaps a desire to escape the Sunken Place.