From the very title of Jordan Peele’s unsettling film “Us” (2019), we as viewers should already expect to feel implicated in the horrors that follow. After all, don’t we casually think of ourselves as “us” all the time? Maybe we think of ourselves as “us” because we’re Americans. Or, maybe we group ourselves into “us” according to narrower categories of gender, class, and race. But even if we broaden our categories of inclusiveness to encompass all of humanity, the underlying tendency remains to think of “us” as distinct from “them.”
Any such easy comforts vanish with the film’s “inciting incident,” that moment when the shadowy doppelganger family appears in the driveway of the Wilson’s summer vacation house. The father tries to frighten these intruders off. He clutches a baseball bat while he threatens to call the police. But the doppelgangers won’t leave. The son recognizes them, saying in both wonder and fear, “They’re us.” His insight here is especially significant because it signals the breakdown of what we so easily consider to be the normal and natural barriers between “us” and “them.”
What follows is this family’s fight for their lives against a mass of malevolent, uncanny doubles that want to kill them and to replace them. Interestingly, just like the previous four films we’ve watched in this series on recent horror movies, “Us” explores the concept of “family.” Although the Wilsons as our protagonists clearly pull together to defend themselves against these attackers who look just like them, these “tethered” doppelgangers can also be seen as a family of sorts. They hold hands, just like the stick-figure family on the back window of the Wilsons’ minivan. When confronted, the Wilsons scatter like frightened individuals. By contrast, the doppelgangers work together, in a way that demonstrates an almost telepathic connection among them. In defeating the doppelgangers, the Wilsons circle back to help each other in a common cause that reiterates and emphasizes their own need for family connection.
The bloody battles between the family members and their evil twins allow for lots of conventional horror movie thrills, whether the weapons are bats and golf clubs or sharp sets of long scissors; however, the underlying philosophical and psychological problems presented by uncanny doubles remain.
The conversation between Red and Adelaide, where our heroine learns about the horrific experiences of her shadow self, raises important and unsettling issues about how we define ourselves against the unknown other. Our instant reaction to doppelgangers might be to view them as nothing more than monsters, but the truth is more unsettling. The uncanny double breaks down easy divisions between self and other because it reverses the subjective gaze. Instead, we become the irrational object. We can’t help recognizing that our mirror image self views us as the insidious other. We are alienated from our own comfortable subjectivity.
Narratively, “Us” breaks down our unexamined notions of self and other by making us question whom we choose to identify with in this film. As moviegoers our typical habit is immediately to sympathize with the protagonist. She’s just like us, we think. We will root for her. But our snap judgment about Adelaide as the loving wife and the caring mother is undermined as we learn more about the back story of her childhood encounter with her uncanny double.
In the end, “Us” demands that we consider how Adelaide (the normal, untethered child) could grow into something as evil and malicious as we have assumed the tethered to be, while Red (supposedly her shadow self) could adapt and develop into that model wife and mother with whom we held such affinity. The dramatic shift embodied in the Adelaide/Red swap reflects back on us as viewers of “Us” because it suggests that we all are shaped more by our social conditioning than by any essentialist version of identity. Any of us can become them; any of them could be us.