** Warning this post contains major spoilers to Jordan Peele’s “Us”. I’d really, really suggest you watch the film before proceeding. ***
What if we are not who we think we are? What if we are not who we claim to be?
I believe Jordan Peele asks several of these questions in his latest film, “Us”. Peele in a recent interview remarked that his idea for this film came about as a kid when he used to walk the subways of New York and envision a person across the tunnel, standing and staring back at him, who looked identical to himself. He claims this to be a universal human terror: seeing ourselves when we know that what we see can’t really be us.
Adelaide at one scene in the film expresses to her husband (Gabe) that as a child she encountered this very terror. She saw herself and felt within her bones that that version of herself would one day catch up to her. There’s an apocalyptic vibe to this film which stands alongside its home-invasion, horror format. The first act trembles with the sense that something is coming, and that something demands to be exposed.
If you’ve seen the film then you know the conspiracy. The government has secretly been cloning humans and keeping them hidden in underground tunnels. And the cloning has not worked out as expected. Rather than creating another soul in the process, the cloning has created two bodies that can only share the same soul. These clones have been imprisoned underground being forced to live the same experiences of the originals yet in an artificial way. Denied real experience, denied real relationship, denied freedom, these clones rebel.
In the ensuing rebellion these clones savagely attempt to murder their counterparts and call it the “untethering”. At first glance, these clones seem to be the “dark-side” of their counterparts, but as the film develops, things seem to become a little more complicated than that.
One of the truly disturbing things in this film is the ways in which the two Wilson children are forced into savagely killing these dark duplicates. It comes at a point in which you can’t help but cheer them on because the things they are fighting seem like ruthless monsters.
There’s a scene though that still leaves me feeling uneasy. Upon entering into the house of their friends, the Wilson’s discover that their friends have been murdered by their respective counterparts. The Wilson parents get separated from their kids, and the kids are forced to fight ruthlessly to stay alive. At one point, Zora knocks out one of these juvenile counterparts and proceeds to bash her head in repeatedly with a golf-club. This scene felt several seconds too long. It intentionally did not fit the comedic, righteously violent mood. It felt as though a line was crossed and forced me to have to address something within myself. What at one moment was self-defense now felt like savage brutality. The family survives the incident and proceeds to drive off but not before weighing out their kill-count to each other to see who got to drive. It earned plenty of unconscious laughs. Peele’s comedy bleeds through this whole film and adds something important to it.
Peele, I think, exposes our moral masquerades. We, like the characters in “Us”, all wear masks that allow us to be who we want to be and to hide the parts of ourselves that we’d rather not have to reckon with. We can prominently display our cheery dispositions and conveniently store the things we dislike underground. Rather than face our own evil, we would rather bury it. Rather than weep over our sins, we would rather laugh them off. Peele’s humor in a similar way helps make the horror more palatable and ironically shields us from having to make moral evaluations of the “good” characters in this film.
The twist at the end of the film is the real kicker though. After Adelaide kills her counterpart (“Red”), Adelaide tells her son that everything is going to go back to normal. However, as the family drives off for what is to be a happy ending, it is revealed that when Adelaide and Red first saw each other as kids that Red forcibly switched places with Adelaide. Adelaide is unconscious of this fact up until this moment which leads us to believe that these two have been inextricably linked to the point of no longer being able to distinguish their own origin or identity. For the entirety of the film, who we thought to be good was in fact bad, and who we thought to be bad was maybe a little less bad. And this drives into question how we are to morally evaluate these counterparts if they do share the same soul as their respective originals. Since these two people share the same soul aren’t their actions coming from the same intention?
So what makes seeing ourselves so terrifying?
There’s a character in the film that stands out to me, however. Jason, the youngest in the Wilson family, appears to have the greatest self-awareness of the bunch and deals with his counterpart in a distinctly different way than the rest of his family. Each family member effectively murders their counterpart. But Jason realizes that he controls his counterpart (I personally think Jason was more in sync with his counterpart than anybody else hence his “lack of attention” and the mask he wears up-and-down throughout the film). Jason in a way realizes that he is his counterpart and leads him(self) into a fire to protect his family. Maybe it’s just the way he holds his arms up as he walks backwards, but to me this scene felt like a surrender of self rather than an attack on another.
Jason sees himself in a way that I am afraid to. I don’t want to see what’s under the mask, and I certainly don’t want to reckon with the evil within myself. I think what makes seeing ourselves so scary is that we see our inadequacies and immorality. We see what is lacking, or we see someone who knows what we know about ourselves- the sorts of things you’d rather just stuff away. Of course Jason is somewhat morally ambiguous as well, but what makes him distinct is that he sees himself honestly. One part of himself is holding the fire and another part of himself is being burned. There’s an honest conflict within Jason that is not occurring within the other characters of this film. And while the others are either fighting with or running from their shadow sides, there’s a very brief moment in which the truth of who he is exposed by just a little bit of light.