Perception vs. Reality: Thoughts on Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph in Us

Hi, I’m not really in a review writing mood about now. I’ll get back to it eventually I guess, but for now wanted to drop some very spoilery takes on Jordan Peele’s Us, because boy does it feel like that film is trying to say a lot and I have thoughts. This is by no means meant to be authoritative, and I’d love to hear what you took from it in the comments. 

Sometimes you don’t need a take. Us is pretty good, the final act didn’t quite land for me in the way that it was supposed to, but the strength of the filmmaking and the sustained tension throughout that final sequence was enough to keep me through until the end. I guessed what the twist was right at the beginning, usually it’s not something I’m good at in films, and generally I try not to make a habit of it, so those final moments maybe didn’t hit me like they did some others.

I’m more interested in trying to parse what that twist means, in the context of the film, in how it meshes with what the piece is trying to say. All along we’ve been rooting for our leads to kill their evil twins, yet the twins reveal pretty early on that their actions are payback for years of unknowing and indirect abuse from the leads. When Red, Lupita Nyong’o’s doppelgänger, reveals how she was compelled to perform a c-section on herself to mirror the actions of the character above, her absurdly sinister demeanour kinda shields the audience from the reality of the actual horror that she’s describing.

We gotta recognise too that, while they describe themselves as shadows, they aren’t the only ones that we see in the film. Our leads are presented as the shadow selves of their friends, vacationing in the same area, only in a slightly shabbier house, with a slightly shabbier boat, and honestly kinda less perfect kids too. I mean, Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker (reprising his role from Rick Alverson’s The Comedy) are perfectly cast as insensitive assholes, but they’re successful assholes and therefore enviable. I mean, Moss’ character has surgery too: cosmetic.

Their doubles dispatch them efficiently, to the sound of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and NWA’s Fuk Da Police. I think we’re supposed to enjoy their demise, their complacency and insularity brings it upon themselves. It’s a hint at this idea of deserving and undeserving victims, the ‘tethered’ as they call themselves have arisen from underground to mete out justice, and some folks might just deserve what they get.

In it’s most pointed gag, the question ‘Who are you?’ is actually answered, ‘We’re Americans.’ It’s a funny line and honestly one that’ll probably be argued over by people discussing this film for years to come. The line deliberately leaves room for ambiguity: they reside in America and so are, quite literally, Americans. They are also, as they say, tethered to an individual — each of them is an American. And finally, is America being referred to as a concept? Is the nature of their being distinctly American?

It’s a smart little bit of writing that invites the audience to ask more questions than it answers. The concept of a hidden shadow America is brought up all the time in the way that contemporary life is discussed. Look at the articles released over the past few years about the ‘lost communities’ of the heartland, regular, ordinary (usually Trump voting), folks who have been cast aside by a government who does not seem to care about them. While somewhere else forum posts light up with insight about the dark money network of Soros cash funding unnumbered sinister goings on.

Of course the largest, and probably most truthful, shadow world is the one that we each take a part in constructing ourselves. When things like the recent college admissions scandal (rich people pay for things they don’t deserve, gosh) are unveiled, we are invited to question the assumptions that we had lived our lives with. Despite my cynicism I have no doubt that there are people out there questioning the notion of the meritocracy for the first time as a result of the past few weeks.

The underworld with which we are confronted as the film comes to a close is a representation of this America. A collection of signifiers divorced from their meaning, through which one can appreciate the truly arbitrary nature of the way society is currently arranged. The explanation that we’re given, government mind control and the like is sorta disappointing on a literalist level yet its result, a confrontation with the fact that our lives cause invisible irreparable damage to communities we aren’t even aware of, hits close to home.

It is important that these figures aren’t some crazed elemental force of evil, that idea would be a far more comforting prospect. At the end it is revealed that Nyong’o’s Adelaide was actually replaced by her double as a child, the ‘human’ was trapped in the underground, and the copy thrived above. You know what? She’s fine, she does alright for herself.

Imma take a moment to praise her performance here, specifically as Adelaide. She’s playing a character who spent the first few years of their life experiencing horrific trauma, who is forced to revisit the site where it happened. She escaped, though the guilt of the actions she had to take to forge a better life remain. She alone is able to empathise with their attackers because she can comprehend their experience. The film ends with her son eyeing her with distrust which seems quite unearned.

These are folks with different perspectives upon the same situation and yet the only way that they seem able to reconcile it is by destroying each other. Neither has the capacity to understand, and the two that do have been so broken by the actions of their past that they cannot.

I keep coming back to one of the film’s best scenes. Winston Duke’s character sees these mysterious figures in his driveway and goes out to tell them to leave. Unable to do so he reenters the house, briefly panics, and then heads back out again, sure that he can do it right if given a second chance. It’s like really lovely work from him and balances the delicate tension between the moment’s comedy and terror perfectly.

What keeps coming back to me is the fact that his character thinks he gets a second chance. That he’d be able to get through if he just changed the delivery of his message rather than the content. The film’s opening credits roll over a shot of an eye, Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography constantly draws attention to the act of seeing, through extended POV shots, and an edit by Nicholas Monsour that favours these tight reaction shots over showing what it is characters are actually reacting to.

It’s about perception, and how our destructive impulses are only made worse when we refuse to consider that other ways of viewing the world. The final image shows the tethered recreating the Hands Across America benefit event that we saw advertised in the film’s opening moments. An iconic image devoid now of context. The original was either a great charitable cause, or a demonstration of self-important American exceptionalism. Maybe we should start considering the nuance to these things, otherwise all that’s going to be remembered is their image.

Us is currently screening in UK cinemas.

Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Evan Alex, and Shahadi Wright Joseph in UsImage courtesy of Universal Pictures


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