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Jordan Peele’s “Us” Goes Down the Rabbit Hole of Identity

His sophomore effort, featuring a rampaging gang of doppelgängers, radically expands the themes of his film debut "Get Out."

Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele loves a rabbit. There is a song that appears in the first scene of Get Out, Peele’s Oscar-winning debut as a movie writer and director, that goes “Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run! Run! Run!” as Lakeith Stanfield’s character Dre strolls to his doom through a white suburb. It’s an old British song from World War II, and to the modern ear, it rings as nostalgic for a time of jolly tea parties and unchecked white supremacy. Peele proved himself to be a master of genre contrast in Get Out by mixing horror with black satire, and the juxtaposition between “Run, Rabbit, Run” and Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” whose “stay woke” refrain is another key theme in the movie’s soundtrack, added another layer to the movie’s atmospheric tension.

A rabbit also opens Us, Peele’s follow-up effort. The opening credits play out across a long, lingering close-up of a white rabbit’s eye. It won’t make sense until much later in the movie, when we learn what exactly rabbits have to do with the bloody chaos that is about to be unleashed. For now, though, the rabbit is just a clue—a trembling, vulnerable animal.

Get Out is an extraordinary movie, a great catapulting leap forward in the satirical examination of race in American screen fiction. Possessed of a golden plot—interracial couple visits white liberal parents upstate, who turn out to be enslaving black people—Peele focused on executing it perfectly, tying up all the loose ends and drawing the movie to a satisfying close. In his second outing, however, Peele has given himself a little more room to stretch out and experiment. Having been frustrated by the misinterpretation of Get Out as a comedy, Peele has responded by delivering a movie soaked in blood, terror, and ambiguity.

Us is stranger than Get Out, with deeper philosophical undercurrents flowing through it. The rabbit that greets you at the movie’s start is an invitation. Will you follow, like Alice in her Wonderland? The journey will be at your peril—there’s no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Us is a movie about an American family: Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) is the mom, Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) is the dad, and they’re vacationing with their kids, teenaged Zora (Shahadi Wright), and her little brother Jason (Evan Alex). After a tantalizing flashback to Adelaide’s childhood in the mid-1980s, we skip to the present day. Adelaide is now a grown woman. She wears a breezy cream linen dress, and the sun is shining over the beach on Santa Cruz.

But Adelaide just can’t get comfortable. Something happened on this beach when she was a child, she tells Gabe: She thinks she saw a little girl who was her double in a funhouse mirror. We saw it, too, in that flashback scene: As in the René Magritte painting Not to Be Reproduced (La reproduction interdite), Adelaide turned to look in the mirror but saw the back of her own head. Is this really another self, or just some hallucination? Gabe is skeptical. “I don’t feel like myself,” Adelaide says. “I think you look like yourself,” Gabe replies.

Are we who we feel ourselves to be? Or are we simply a composite of other people’s perceptions of us? It’s the first of Us’s big questions about identity. A whole slew of new questions soon show up, however, as a mysterious family appears in the Wilsons’ driveway at their vacation home.

There are four figures; two adults, two children. They are all wearing identical red jumpsuits, perfectly cut, like some quartet of Rachel Comey models. They each wear one glove and carry a large pair of dressmaking scissors. They are motionless, until they aren’t. As they break their way into the Wilsons’ home, we realize that they are the family’s doppelgängers, and they are there to kill.

Adelaide was the only one who saw them coming, but her reaction to their arrival is straight denial: “Uh uh. Uh uh. Uh uh,” she repeats, shaking her head. Once inside, the doppelgängers force the Wilsons to sit across from them. They are the Wilsons’ shadows, the double-Adelaide explains. Everything that Adelaide did in her life, the shadow-Adelaide had to act out, too. “When the shadow was hungry she had to eat rabbit, raw,” the double says, referring to herself in the third person. When Adelaide got toys as presents, the shadow-Adelaide received metal that cut her fingers. When Adelaide had a C-section, the shadow-self had to perform the operation on herself.

“Who are you people?” the real Wilsons ask. The answer? “We are Americans.”

There are many ways to interpret the sudden arrival of doppelgängers hell-bent on murder. As in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), there is the sense that the Wilsons simply deserve to be destroyed, because all bourgeois families are in possession of riches and comfort that are not rightfully theirs. The shadow-Wilsons are identical in appearance to their counterparts, though evil of eye and ragged of speech (only shadow-Adelaide can speak, the others growl). The dichotomy suggests that every happy American family exists at the expense of another family, like the other in all ways except social circumstances.

Doubles are often introduced to push the protagonists into an identity crisis, such as in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Duncan Jones’s Moon. But the story that resonates most strongly with the shadow-people of Us is J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter Pan. As you might remember, Peter loses his shadow when a window shuts suddenly after he leaps through it, severing it from him. The children’s nanny doesn’t know what to do with it: “unfortunately Mrs. Darling could not leave it hanging out at the window; it looked so like the washing and lowered the whole tone of the house.” Neither does Peter:

If he thought at all, but I don’t believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water; and when they did not he was appalled. He tried to stick it on with soap from the bathroom, but that also failed. A shudder passed through Peter, and he sat on the floor and cried.

It’s one of the very saddest moments in a very sad story. But it’s precisely the same unnameable grief that hovers between Adelaide and her shadow when they meet. Wendy eventually sews Peter’s shadow back on, but the Wilsons have no such luck—they will have to fight the severed shadows for the right to exist.

The notion of a person’s “shadow” has also been examined extensively by postcolonial theorists. In Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, he writes of the “Manichaean delirium” that buzzes through a colonial society, where existence is split into subaltern suffering and the colonizer’s ease. A kind of madness spreads through such a society, he writes, a neurosis that affects the haves and the haves-not alike, because they are bound together in a horribly anxious dyad.

America is not a colony like Algeria, but its economic and racial inequalities (which overlap to a large degree) have fashioned society into distinct strata: the privileged and the others. (It is worth noting here that Us can be read as “U.S.”) If in an unequal society the poor and the disenfranchised always exist as a shadow double to the rich, then the severing of the link may result in a traumatic shattering of the privileged person’s sense of herself.

This is what happens to Adelaide and her family; the shadow-Adelaide, credited as Red, calls her family’s appearance in the normal world “The Untethering.” Playing both Red and Adelaide, Lupita Nyong’o must establish both characters as distinct entities. As Adelaide, Nyong’o’s prettiness reads as maternal and decorative. But as Red, the smooth curves of her face and eyes become dead and unresponsive as a porcelain doll.

But the Wilsons do not collapse so easily, and this is where Peele expands upon the political critique that he formed in Get Out. Held together by strong bonds of love and African American identity (Gabe wears a Howard sweatshirt throughout the movie, and the family groove together to “I Got 5 On It” in the car), the Wilsons (spoiler alert) outlive countless white people whose doubles easily slaughter them.

If the postcolonial theoretical framework of Us is the right one, then it makes sense that African Americans would be the citizens who know enough of subaltern existence to be able to survive their shadows’ attacks. They would be, themselves, shadow people, haunted by the profound certainty that oppressors cannot exist without those who are oppressed.

It would ruin the movie to explain exactly how The Tethered (as the shadow people are called) came to exist, and why they attacked the rest of humanity, but suffice it to say, the explanation does not match up to the sophisticated and funny exploration of identity that the rest of the movie presents. It’s an answer that shuts down the possibilities of its own question, and it’s the one truly disappointing moment in Us.

Still, Us is an uncanny movie, and an implicit riposte to the questions Peele himself asked in Get Out. What if there’s no easy ending? What if the real struggle takes place within? In the tradition of some of this country’s finest authors on race and politics, Peele pushes the conversation forward.