Jordan Peele’s latest film is the next step in his ongoing process of reinventing and rethinking American horror cinema from the inside out. Like Get Out, it’s acutely aware that American horror is a white genre, and is nearly always bound up with fears associated with the waning of whiteness. If anything, Us is even more aware of the intractability of these tropes, and the difficulty of extricating horror and whiteness, or mobilizing horror against whiteness, producing a film that is even more restless and ambitious than Get Out, but which for that very reason also feels more like a line of flight, a point of departure for future horror possibilities, and a gesture of figurative disruption above all else. As a result, Us often feels more like an instalment in Jordan Peele’s upcoming reboot of The Twilight Zone than a standalone film – or like several different stories in one, a flowering of black horror possibilities, and a blueprint for future black horror directors to draw on and extend further.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a clear horror narrative here either, but it spirals out in the third act into something considerably more freeform and strange than what the first two acts provide. Before these even begin, we’re presented with a prologue, which takes place at the Santa Cruz Pier in 1986. Wandering away from her family on a hot summer night, Adelaide Thomas, played by Madison Curry, comes across a hall of mirrors built at the bottom of the pier. Once inside, she loses her way, before coming across what appears to be a doppelganger of herself. At this point, the action shifts to the present, and moves away from the fairground, and the hall of mirrors, for most of the film. Nevertheless, the eerie, liminal spaces in and around the pier remain as a figure for all the narrative possibilities raised and unresolved by the film, forming a narrative architecture that, once again, feels like Peele’s way of visualizing the scope and ambition of his reworking of The Twilight Zone.
The first act reintroduces us to Adelaide in the present, where she is played by Lupita Nyong’o, along with her husband Gabe Wilson, played by Winston Duke, her daughter Zora, played by Shahadi Wright Joseph, and her son Jason, played by Evan Alex. We meet the Wilsons en route for a vacation to Santa Cruz, where they have rented a lakeside cottage, and plan to spend time on the beach with their friends Kitty, played by Elisabeth Moss, and Josh, played by Tim Heidecker. From the moment they arrive, however, Adelaide is uneasy, recalling her surreal experience at Santa Cruz when she was a child. She’s unwilling to even go to the beach, and becomes more anxious still when she sees that the hall of mirrors is still in operation. When Evan briefly vanishes on the beach, her panic peaks, and she insists upon returning to the house with her family, promising to catch up with their friends later.
While this first part of the film initially seems benign enough, the family-friendly vibe is quickly offset by the way in which Peele shoots his main characters. Time and again, Peele places black skin in darkness, or turns black skin into a source of darkness, as if over-identifying with the way in which black skin tends to be shot in Hollywood at large. Adelaide and her family are often shot with bright sources of light behind them, culminating with the lurid late afternoon glow of the beach at Santa Cruz, where Peele frequently shoots directly into the sun whenever black faces are in the foreground. As a result, it’s often impossible to discern the facial expressions of the film’s black characters, or to even see their faces at all, with only the whites of their eyes betraying any sense of faciality. The point is succinctly made in the shift from the prologue to the first act, and from the past to the present. Here, Peele moves from Adelaide’s face, which is almost indiscernible apart from the whites of her eyes illuminated by horror, to a black rabbit eye that is surrounded by bright white fur.
The position of Adelaide’s family is therefore contradictory over this first act of the film. On the one hand, they commune comfortably with white families, and seem comfortable partaking in activities that are normally associated with white middle-class life, such as renting a lake house, or including a (white) sticker of their family on the back of their SUV. More generally, the exude a stilted and awkward politeness that seems designed to suppress the blackness of their own voices and postures, reminding me of Cassius Green’s adoption of whitevoice in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. At the same time, however, this white aspiration renders them invisible in their own lives, or at least renders a certain part of their lives invisible, as scene after scene unfolds in which it is impossible for us, or them, to discern their faces. This dissociates their dialogue from any consistent tonality, giving the film an eerie free-floating ambience that often recalls Get Out.
This leads on to the second act, which also recalls Get Out in its awareness that home invasion is one of the most intractable tropes of American horror, but also one of the tropes that is most inextricable from whiteness. In possibly the eeriest moment of the film, Adelaide looks out the window to realise that “there’s a family standing in our driveway.” Two horror possibilities immediately suggest themselves here. First, this situation recalls the classic home invasion trope in which a white family are threatened by alien forces, forces that are often associated with blackness, whether literally or figuratively. Second, this situation recalls a more revisionist home invasion trope, in which a black family are threatened by the intimidation and bullying of white homeowners anxious to remove them.
Neither of these options come to pass in Peele’s version, however, which seems disinterested in either classical or revisionist horror. Instead, the family outside are doppelgangers of the Wilsons themselves, making their way into the hearth where they sit, staring, at their doubles. These figures aren’t exactly human, but they’re not completely inhuman either. Instead, they play as a bundle of repressed movements and poses, vocal and muscular tics that signify blackness, but that have been subsumed by Adelaide and her family into their white middle-class identity. In effect, they are what is left behind when passing for white, confronting the Wilsons with a radically othered blackness that is nevertheless essential to the mode of white middle-class suburban life they have espoused.
This leads onto a second home invasion narrative, which takes place at Kitty and Josh’s house. As with the first home invasion narrative, this doesn’t really subscribe to either horror classicism or revisionism, although the parodic elements are perhaps more pronounced here. Thinking she hears something outside, Kitty asks Josh to check the garden, only for him to reply, sarcastically, that he “sees OJ.” Moments later, when Kitty is about to be destroyed by the home invaders, she asks their home entertainment console to call the police, only for it to mishear her and start playing NWA’s “Fuck tha Police.” Between those two parodic poles, however, Kitty and Josh experience an unusual home invasion. In a classical horror film, they would be invaded by the demonic Wilsons, while in a revisionist horror film they might mistake the real Wilsons for their intruders. In this case, however, they are invaded by their own doppelgangers, forcing them to see themselves as othered, as an invasive force, and to glimpse their complicity in the dichotomies that sustain whiteness.
This leads on to the third act of the film, which is the most ambitious, unusual and messy part of Peele’s vision. By resisting both classical and revisionist approaches to the two home invasion scenarios he describes, Peel conveys a restlessness with the deeper dichotomies, or binary opposites, that structure American horror. Whether American horror is afraid of blackness, or exposing the fear of blackness, blackness is still always relegated to an otherness, and used as the figurative ground for a whole series of other dichotomies that structure the horror mode. In Us, by contrast, the horror lies in precisely the fact that the Wilsons seem to have been integrated, and escaped the figuratve burden of their blackness always being used an anchor for binary opposites, only to find those opposites returning with a supernatural fervor once their doppelgangers arrive. At this point, the film spirals out into an almost endless series of correspondances, symmetries and resonances, an overdetermined plethora of ways in which blackness can be used to define other situations.
In the process, Peele suggests that it is almost impossible to extricate blackness from non-whiteness in American cinema, but that it is crucial to do so in order to envisage a properly black horror cinema. To achieve that, he takes his cues from the doppelganger Wilsons, whose anarchic sense of play refuses to ever define itself against any one external point of reference, not even the original Wilson family. In Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s terms, these doppelgangers engage in signifyin’, promulgating a form of black expression that is continually shifting its terms, positions and orientation to avoid being co-opted by a white optic anxious to use blackness as a way of defining and buttressing its own sense of identity.
This continuous shifting extends to the third act as a whole, which grows more freeform as it proceeds. We quickly learn that an army of doppelgangers have been released on one night, and are stalking the streets of Santa Cruz, collapsing horror into survival horror as the Wilsons try to make their way out of town. Yet there are so many questions left unanswered, and so many figurative tropes that seem to go nowhere, that this final act feels more like a line of flight from white horror than either a classical or revisionist horror piece in and of itself. In the best way, it’s often quite incoherent, dismantling the building blocks of American cinema in an attempt to either create something new with them, or discard them if something new can’t be built. Perhaps that’s why this final act often seems to move between horror and other genres, as if black horror had to be off-horror, or only partial horror, so absolutely has the idea of horror been colonized by white American cinema. Preposterous and visionary at the same time, these closing moments are particularly redolent of the way in which the original Twilight Zone suggested an alternate world that already existed within our world, rather than a world in figurative opposition to our world.
Like The Twilight Zone, Us also uses sound as a way of capturing this other world. Even more so than Get Out, Us operates on the sonic plane, and depends upon the sonic plane for its meaning, producing a rich ambience that is intercut by eerily mixed and repurposed fragments of popular songs. During the first and only time that the family visit the beach together, Peele sinks us into an immersive soundscape that often recalls Jaws, especially since Jason is actually wearing a Jaws shirt, while Adelaide scans the beach in the manner of Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody, in the iconic scene before Spielberg’s shark takes its first and only child victim. In a way, Jason meets the same fate, since he makes first contact here with the doppelganger world that makes him its main victim and target in the film’s final scene.
That citation of Jaws says a lot about Peele’s relation to earlier horror cinema. Most simply, by replacing the shark with the doppelganger world, Peele suggests that the monsters of classical horror cinema were always bound up with fears of blackness, and the fears that black people themselves have been encouraged to harbor regarding their own blackness. Yet by doubling down on the sonic ambience of Jaws, Peele also suggests that the way to move beyond this situation is to dissociate horror from visual experience, and the visual field. After all, American horror is driven, above all, by things and by people that look different. As Us proceeds, Peele thus relies less and less on visual difference as a source of horror, relying more on a soundscape and an ambience that always suggests the arrival of visual difference, but ends up exceeding it, or precluding it, or at least rendering it anticlimactic. So it is here, as Jason’s discovery is subsumed into the soundscape that anticipates and then continues past it, as if the ultimate point of Us were to envisage a mode of horror where sound is able to entirely overtake sight as the main point of sensory contact. And it’s the sounds of the film that do the real signifyin’, whether it’s the clicks of the doppelganger family or Peele’s own mixing and splicing of his source songs, a continual counterpoint to everything the audience thinks they see, or knows about their own seeing.