Latent Images
Why ‘Us’ Is Essential Quarantine Viewing
by Matt Pifko

Perhaps you’ve found yourself looking in the mirror more often lately. More often than you’d like to. Reflection is inevitable in periods of isolation, but few of us are prepared for this level of self-scrutiny. Deprived of other faces, deprived of other voices, deprived of other thoughts, we are forced to play ball with ourselves. It can be more dangerous than you think.

Us, Jordan Peele’s second feature, was released wide in the U.S. in March of 2019. Acting as a follow up to his smash hit horror Get Out, Us was generally well received, if more divisive than his debut. The image of a mirrored self in a red jumpsuit was iconic from the moment the first trailer dropped—the reaction to the actual film, however, was mixed. Peele had certainly delivered on the scares, but Us proved to be more challenging and elliptical than audiences had anticipated.

“It’s our time now. Our time up there.”

Although your first impulse in a global pandemic might not be to turn on Peele’s dense vision of terror, a rewatch of Us in the age of COVID-19 proves to be immensely rewarding. Here is a film that is deeply prescient, not because it predicted anything in particular about the current state of the world, but because it understands what lies at the heart of our so-called ‘United’ States. There is a fear, a fear of looking closely at our private selves, that has become easier to nurture in an increasingly interconnected, sensory overloaded world. 

In signature Peele fashion, the basic premise is sparse enough to be digestible for mainstream audiences and yet high concept enough to stand out from the usual horror fare. A black family, consisting of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children, Jason and Zora (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph, respectively), are vacationing at their Santa Cruz lake house when they are suddenly attacked by doppelgängers carrying large scissors: Red, Abraham, Pluto and Umbrae. As the scope widens, we learn that these doppelgängers, called the Tethered, have been living in the abandoned tunnels across the country, and that there is one corresponding self for each and every American citizen living aboveground.

For a film that doesn’t cross the two hour mark, Us gives audiences a whole lot to chew on. Although it’s easy to forget thanks to Peele’s deft directorial touch smoothly gliding the audience along from moment to moment, Us is chock full of expository detail, science-fiction alternate reality world building, and even arthouse tinged ambiguity. Where Get Out was comically blunt in its portrayal of insidious racism, Us is a hall of mirrors: each answer leads to more questions. All at once, Peele seemed to be pondering the construction of false nationalistic histories, the toll of America’s capitalist hierarchy on human life, and the ways in which psychological trauma experienced during childhood manifests itself in the present. How could these sprawling ideas fit together into one seamless explanation? In short, they don’t. Us is only streamlined insofar as the roller coaster narrative momentum it builds— starting with the suspenseful carnival tinged 80’s opening.

“I forgot—nobody cares about the end of the world.”

Indeed, from the beginning of Us, the apocalypse is in the air. Storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, rain is falling fast. Darkness swallows everything. Something previously unseen and unutterable is bubbling up from beneath the surface. Zora, the young athlete with an inquisitive mind, thinks it might have something to do with the fluoride the government is putting in the water.

Red calls it “The Untethering”. It’s unclear what she means by this, but whatever it is, it bodes poorly for the established order. This event will most certainly result in the end of one age, and the beginning of an entirely new way of life.

Peele is a filmmaker who has always concerned himself with unraveling the layers of discourse and deception; is it any wonder that an existentially threatening global crisis would uncover those same truths he was already mining for? This crisis has chipped away at the illusion of American exceptionalism, most notably our so-called self-regulating economy and the government’s ability to protect its citizens. If Peele had any kind of mantra, it would read something like this: When the going gets rough and blood starts to flow, the stranger will get stranger.

What is one to do in the face of uncertain, intangible, invisible doom? How do you delay the inevitable? An army lurks beneath our world in the underground tunnels and caverns of America. In Us, survival hinges on the ability to collaborate with the individuals around us, regardless of whatever divides us. Not our mirrors, no, but those irritating, often obstinate members of our family. The two recurring images in Us are that of the split self and that of the nuclear family. Adelaide tries to reason with Red and come to some kind of understanding, but her efforts are futile. Their goals are diametrically opposed. Therefore, Peele posits that if our dark self is our enemy, we must seek mutual refuge in the others around us who are fighting their own fights—in this case, our family. We must not repel these divergent personalities, whether they are parents, siblings, or lovers, and we must resist sinking deeper into our own reflective bubble alone.

“What is this, some kind of fucked up performance art?”

Peele does not decisively conclude whether this cleansing that results from confrontation with the dual self is good or bad in nature. Perhaps this reckoning is inevitable, perhaps it’s been a long time coming, but we should not have to face it alone. Here we are, surrounded by the people who have known us longer than anyone on this Earth, and yet, many choose to self-isolate even within the household. It’s scary to re-form these bonds, to open yourself up in a hostile environment, but our other option is to be Elisabeth Moss’s Kitty Tyler – eternally drowning your senses in vodka and facelifts to evade your darker half, living in denial until the knife is on your throat (or, in this instance, scissor blade).

Red, after swapping places with her mirror (the original Adelaide is actually Red and vice versa, as a shocking third act flashback reveals), cannot communicate at all with her new parents. She, having lived in darkness, the other above the surface, must contend with her drastically transformed reality. It’s not easy, but the necessities of survival are rarely easy. Everything comes to light eventually.

What’s really under the skin, down there in the darkness? Is there a light on the other side of this subterranean tunnel we have plunged into? It’s quite possible there isn’t an end to this pit. The world of Us suggests that the government could be responsible for creating this darkness, but either way, it’s definitely down there, and it’s not going away any time soon. The time for confrontation is past due. The hidden tenets of our society must be unearthed, the rotten foundations excised. We’re moving towards an inevitable battle for the soul, and our best chance of surviving is descending into the abyss held by another. Here’s to being alone together – all of Us.