Double Trouble

Same as it ever was: Stephen Root wants your eye, man.

Just like us, only different

The Gorgeous Construction and Spectacular Collapse of Us

Jordan Peele’s Us didn’t really scare me, and that’s not a complaint. I didn’t find it particularly suspenseful, which is also not a criticism.

Those two sentences reflect not the craft of Us as a horror movie but the writer/director’s use of metaphor and symbolism — an area where he overplays his hand and gets into serious trouble.

Before anything happens in the movie, Peele sets the table with two bits: the title card referencing thousands of miles of underground tunnels in the United States, and a young girl (in 1986) watching a commercial for Hands Across America.

Both pay off plot-wise and in the movie’s imagery, but they were so foregrounded that my brain immediately kicked into interpretation mode. Throughout Us, I was watching at a cool remove instead of being immersed in what would/could/should have been a terrifying good time. From the outset, I was working.

And then Peele continues to add layers of seemingly consequential bits beyond the core conceit of sinister doppelgängers: Jeremiah 11:11, the red jumpsuits, the scissors, “Thriller,” the hand-holding, “It’s us”/”We’re Americans,” the caged rabbits, “Find Yourself,” ... .

The details matter. Jeremiah 11:11 isn’t just an appropriate Bible verse for this version of Hell (“I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape”). And its additional import is not limited to the double doubling of numbers, repeated several times (on the clock, in a baseball score). It’s a unit of four individuals (ones) mirroring the composition of the movie’s two/four families.

Hands Across America isn’t merely a period reference, and it doesn’t just serve to highlight the movie’s emphasis on class and class differences. Its significance doesn’t even end with the film’s persistent visual motif of people joined and cut apart. It’s a particularly apt example of the grand empty gesture, a way for the well-off to feel good about themselves without actually doing much good. And it’s further resonant because of the power and grisly triumph of an equivalent gesture at the movie’s end.

You can even read meaning into the tossed-off re-branding of the funhouse, its theme altered from Native American to the unproblematic Merlin. In this country, we don’t confront ugly realities; we just pretend they don’t exist.

All those bits contribute to the sense, for most of Us, that the creative force behind Get Out had built another meticulously constructed trap, an unapologetic horror movie using its genre to speak trenchantly on social issues.

But it finally collapses under some unfortunate storytelling choices. An unnecessary origin story for the “Tethered” doubles robs them of their potency as symbols. And as an extension of that, the psychic bond tying “them” to “us” is so strong that the narrative can’t withstand even casual scrutiny. The real trap is one Peels sets for himself: His diligent method invites a close reading that Us cannot bear.

No Escape

At this point in his filmmaking career, Peele hasn’t quite been able to put it all together. He’s undoubtedly a skillful and ambitious entertainer: He gets uniformly excellent work from his actors and chooses his collaborators well; he has a strong command of mood and especially dread and sustained unease; his scripts are thoughtfully dense, filled with details that reward multiple viewings; and he obviously wants to say something. Yet in two attempts he’s come up a bit short of the greatness that seems so tantalizingly within reach.

There’s certainly a modest greatness in Get Out. His debut neatly and elegantly encapsulated centuries of American racial dynamics in a simple funny/horrifying premise, and the juxtaposition always felt natural. Peele made the audience empathize with the all-too-typical discomfort felt by young black men in this country — walking down the street in a white neighborhood, meeting a white girlfriend’s wealthy family, enduring tone-deaf comments about manhood and athleticism — and amplified it for a horror context.

Get Out was clean and clear, but it was also timid — easy to swallow, and to accept as a comedy, because it never challenged its audience. The protagonists and villains were color-coded according to enlightened norms; it had fun with white people’s fixation on and envy of the exotic Other; it affirmed African-American fear of even the “good” whites; its comedians were funny; too-good-to-be-true Bradley Whitford was not to be trusted. As well-made and clever as it was, it gave back precisely what we brought into it, and it invited us to laugh at truths we already knew.

Us, on the other hand, doesn’t wink, coddle, or comfort. It’s a confrontational work without the escape hatch of comedy.

That’s baked right in. This time, the threat isn’t white people, or other people at all. “It’s us.”

In a hall of mirrors, the young Adelaide (back in 1986) encounters a girl who looks exactly like her. In the present day, she, her husband Gabe, and their two kids are on vacation in Santa Cruz when they spot four people in the driveway, eerily still and holding hands. It’s soon revealed that this red-jumpsuit-clad family is the exact (monstrous) physical double of our protagonists.

Peele mostly pulls it off. The actors expertly play both their “real” and Tethered selves, and the movie creates an ambivalent tension between terror and pathos with the attackers. The invaders are primitive, feral, and violent, but they’re also recognizably human, and pitiable in their obvious misfortune; the son’s double has horrific burn scars on his face, and his mother speaks, haltingly and hauntingly, of the agony of birthing while her equivalent had a C-section.

Doubles and doppelgängers are typically used in horror as embodiments of characters’ repressed and/or darker selves, but Us is playing a different game. It’s not that the enemy is literally or symbolically us or some facet of us; it’s that somewhere in our country are people just like us who are suffering.

And now they’ve come to grab what’s ours, and to assume the social status and spoils that circumstances have denied them. Gabe’s double takes his bat, his glasses, and his boat, but he believes that he must ultimately kill Gabe — to literally replace him.

And it’s not just the well-to-do who are targets. The homeless man with the Jeremiah 11:11 sign is murdered by his doppelgänger, because as bad as the Bible-verse guy had it, somebody was worse off.

Our Prisoners

The core resonance of the movie is that it invokes fears we see all around us without picking sides. Many people who are poor believe that they’re being oppressed for the comfort of others. Many people who are well-off are certain those below them on the social ladder pose a threat to their comfort. In Us, they’re both right.

This class-warfare reading seems to me inescapable. The Tethered mother’s “We’re Americans” is the movie’s only cryptic line, and its peculiar singularity forces the audience to see it as a key. It’s not “We’re you,” or “We’re just like you,” or “We’re people,” or “We’re human,” or any other variant. The words are specific to a country and also to an ideal — that grandiose American self-image, the haven where opportunity matches aspiration.

Then there’s the reality. Hands Across America is an implicit acknowledgment of homelessness and hunger. The jumpsuits recall prison outfits and hint at the problem of mass incarceration. The childbirth dialogue suggests the disparity in access to adequate health care. The protagonists have a proper and varied diet; the Tethered feed on raw rabbit, the only food available to them.

Crucially for the nightmare mirroring in Us, this conflict is a zero-sum affair. Each action has an equal and opposite reaction; our luxury exacts an equivalent cost in their misery. It’s not merely that they are prisoners while we are free; they are our prisoners, one for one.

That’s reinforced in the choice to have the Tethered doing exactly the same things underground as their above-ground doubles, but deriving no benefit. We eat a delicious meal; they choke down uncooked bunnies. We build something with tools and materials; they’re left empty-handed after all that exertion. Adelaide’s dad presumably gets some pleasure from playing Whac-A-Mole; his double just mimes.

Breaking the Story

And here is the point in Us where extending and fleshing out the metaphor and symbolism break the story.

The allure of the idea is obvious. The poor mimic what the comfortable do — they work just as hard — but with vastly different results. What brings us satisfaction and wealth only leads to frustration for them. They are just like us, and they want to be us, but they are not us, and the class system is so rigid that they can never become us.

Yet this underlining is largely redundant — the central idea was firmly and deftly established in the vacation-home living room — and creates a glaring plot problem. The action-for-action matching seems to preclude any free will or independent deed by the Tethered, let alone some coordinated revolt like the one the movie shows.

I guess the moment the Tethered watched Adelaide dance was the point at which they began to (partially?) break free of their connection with the above-ground world (except for mating?), and (perhaps?) the scissors and breaking of bonds are more cathartic ritual symbolism than literal requirements for freedom. And maybe the above-/below-ground rules don’t apply once the Tethered have risen, except when the son needs to save his family by playing puppet-master with his Tethered double?

You get the idea. This unresolvable narrative inconsistency might be easy to overlook in a sloppier movie, but Peele has told you through his filmmaking care to pay attention.

And then he makes it worse. The late flashback montage sketching a quarter century in a few minutes indicates that what happened between A and B shouldn’t just be casually accepted; it should be inferred and explored, even though it makes not a lick of sense in the film’s world.

The more background details Peele provides, the deeper the hole he digs for himself. A few sentences reference an abandoned cloning experiment, and it’s hard to understand the thinking behind that choice.

In the robust literary and cinematic history of doubles and doppelgängers, an explanation is usually not given. Outside of a cloning or identical-twin or parallel-universe context, exact duplicates are by their nature unnatural; they don’t exist, and that’s a key reason they’re so unsettling. (Doubles also free storytellers from natural law, which offers lots of opportunities for additional weird stuff.) Unless your tale is at heart about cloning or identical twins or parallel universes, noting the source of the phenomenon is nearly always detrimental.

Generally but especially in this movie, it pushes the unfathomable into rational territory; it replaces sharp symbolism with a dull literalness; it turns the horrifyingly aberrant into the mundane.

Right Instinct, Wrong Execution

I want to stress that I’m not normally the person who fingers tiny plot holes until I’ve destroyed the garment. I offer storytellers a wide berth, and I’m pretty forgiving.

My disappointment with Us is not that it’s finally a failure. It’s that its careful manner begs you to notice the problems, and that those problems could have been so easily avoided.

Peele clearly built the movie around the twist, so beautifully foreshadowed and so richly embodied by Lupita Nyong’o. It’s an essential feature, recasting much of what we’ve seen and opening a nature/nurture can of worms to savor and digest. It brings into focus that the Tethered are incapable of hatching let alone organizing their own uprising; they cannot help themselves, and instead are pulled out of the earth by a charismatic member of the ruling class. (It’s an ugly stereotype in my class-conflict interpretation, but it’s so basic to the narrative that I’ll give it a pass.)

The twin problems of unnecessary backstory and forced mimicry look to me like an attempt to let the revelation breathe, to give understanding the opportunity to reverberate backward through the story. It’s the right instinct but the wrong execution, with disastrous results.

But in finding serious fault with Us, I don’t want to diminish it. The great, hiding-in-the-open twist and the problematic stuff around it are the movie in miniature: exhilarating and substantial when it works and still worth considering and parsing when it doesn’t. It’s never less than fascinating, even after (and maybe even especially when) it shoots itself in the foot.

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