The films of Jordan Peele are uniquely American horror stories. Behind the glossy veneer, the gore, the violence, and the whipsmart sense of humor, there is a thoughtful rumination on underlying sociopolitical issues that most of us would prefer to pretend don't exist.
With 2017's Oscar-winning Get Out, Peele shined a supremely creepy spotlight on the terrors which white society perpetuates upon black people in America each and every day. With Us, his highly anticipated follow-up, Peele is once again challenging viewers to reckon with a darkness inside of themselves, one that has been not-so-quietly fulminating below the surface and seems poised to erupt in the worst ways possible.
With its story of a family vacation turned upside-down by the arrival of a group of sinister, red jumpsuit-clad doppelgangers, Us weaves a chilling tapestry that will have you double checking every lock on your doors and windows for at least a week after the credits roll. But beyond its surface-level chills and thrills lies something deeper. For his sophomore directorial effort, Peele wanted to speak to a sociopolitical undercurrent in America that is permeating nearly every aspect of our lives: fear. Specifically a fear of those who do not walk like us, talk like us, vote like us, think like us--those who challenge our conceptions of acceptability and propriety and reveal an inner ugliness that we so often try to deny.
“I have a very clear meaning and commentary I’m trying to strike with this film," Peele told the crowd gathered at Austin's Paramount Theatre following the world premiere of Us. "I’m also trying to design a film that’s very personal for every individual. On the broader strokes of things, this movie is about this country. When I decided to write this movie I was stricken by the fact that we’re in a time where we fear The Other — whether it’s the mysterious invader we think is going to come and kill us or take our jobs, or the faction we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger. I wanted to suggest maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us.”
Taking refuge from the unseasonably warm Austin sunshine, I sat down with Jordan Peele in a loft overlooking an art gallery filled with fan-made creations dedicated to his new film. As someone who is perpetually on the edge of his seat during a horror movie, I wanted to know what about Us frightened Jordan Peele enough that he made him want to scare the rest of us too.
"It's never one moment. The fear of seeing another version of me has been there since I was young, a teenager, this idea of seeing myself across a subway platform," Peele said. It's a fear that ironically enough given his next major undertaking stemmed from an episode of The Twilight Zone called "Mirror Image."
"When I have a primal fear, that, to me, is the first cue, 'Okay, figure out what that's about, or explore that at least,'" Peele said of his creative process. "Even if I never figure it out. That was the nugget that I went in on, 'Okay, I've got an engine, this feels universal on some level, this feels primal,' and I did a lot of research on doppelganger mythology, which is everywhere, forever. And then the project became about connect that to a message that can only be, or a film that could only be made today."
That feeling of urgency and a discomfiting relevancy to the world in which we live stems directly from the fractious political climate in which we find ourselves. Just look at any vaguely political thread on Twitter and rather than a genuine discourse, you'll see people screaming into the void, creating an echo chamber of toxic tribalism rather than seeking any sort of resolution. It's a bilious atmosphere that encourages people to look outward to place blame and cast aspersions rather than inward to find solutions.
"Whenever you have suppression of dialogue, of expression, of a type of communication, you have an opportunity to create a release valve for that pressure that can be big and explode and resonate," Peele continued. "In this one, the form of expression that had felt suppressed to me is our introspective abilities as individuals, as a country and every faction you could think of in between. We have an addiction to searching for blame outside of ourselves. And whether or not we hold onto the fact that we are right or not, that suppression comes from a sense of guilt. We know deep down that our privileges come at a cost for others who are not born with that privilege, but are part of the same system."
This lack of introspection speaks directly to how we view the Red family, the doppelgangers who menace Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o), Gabe (Winston Duke), and the Wilson children. Theirs is a chilling duality that juxtaposes privilege and suppression to create a startling dichotomy that goes far beyond the fact that one group is brandishing golden scissors with murderous intent.
"I wanted to pose a difficult emotional and moral question to the audience. Part of that is what we were just talking about, this idea of the villains in our life are people we tend to fear...because of actual fear in ourselves and actual guilt within ourselves," Peele explained. "The purpose of this country is supposed to be one of overwhelming positivity and 'all men are created equal.' And we've got a history of genocide and slavery, so there's an incredible duality in this country, and it is a monster."
While the film speaks to genuinely heavy real-world issues, it's far from a joyless affair. Peele's script is frequently funny, punctuating the abject horror with moments of levity and silliness that are sorely needed to take the edge off. The film is also packed to the gills with easter eggs and tiny details just waiting to be uncovered by eagle-eyed viewers. In particular, one should pay attention during the film's opening moments, which features a television flitting between channels, anchored by a cavalcade of VHS tapes including The Goonies, The Man With Two Brains, The Right Stuff, and perhaps most tellingly C.H.U.D.
"In that scene, yes, [there are easter eggs]," Peele confirmed. "And all the way through the movie, but yeah, that scene certainly.
With such vibrantly creepy worlds created in both Get Out and Us, I couldn't help but ask the obvious question given the state of modern cinema: is Peele going to slowly create a shared cinematic universe and go full M. Night Shyamalan on us?
"No comment," Peele shot back with a smile. "I will leave it out for discussion."
So Get Us coming in 2020 confirmed. You bring the popcorn, I'll bring a large sweatshirt to cower behind.
Us hits theaters on March 23. Read our review!