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Dissecting 'Us'

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This spoiler-filled episode examines the hidden meanings of Jordan Peele's latest box office hit with the help of a UC Riverside professor of media and cultural studies.

Show transcript

Welcome back to another episode of listener supported KPBS cinema Junkie podcast. I'm Beth Accomando. Jordan peels US has been killing it at the box office and it's been stirring a lot of discussion about what it all means and that's what we're going to talk about today but to get us started here's the trailer. You know how sometimes. Things line up. Coincidences. Since we've been up here. They've been happening more.

And more. It's like there's this black cloud. Hanging over. Us.

There is a family in our driveway. It.

Serves up a very different kind of horror from peals debut feature get out but it's scary good in its own way. So today I'm going to try and peel back some layers of us with the UC Riverside professor John Jennings. But fair warning there's spoilers ahead. That's right. You've had more than a week to get to a theater to check out this eagerly anticipated film. And because it's nearly impossible to talk about without revealing something that should be kept secret. I'm doing this podcast just for those of us who've seen the film and are dying to discuss what it all means with somebody else.

Peele had his cast members watched 10 films in preparation for making us dead again the shining the Baba duke it follows a Tale of Two Sisters the birds Funny Games martyrs Let The Right One In and The Sixth Sense and just to lay a little more groundwork for the discussion. I'm gonna have with John Jennings. Here's an interview with Jordan Peele from the Universal Studios press kit for us. I tend to draw inspiration from my own fear I at some point I ask myself what's the scariest thing for me personally and in this case it was.

The idea of seeing myself when I think about what that's about why you're seeing yourself so scary. I think no one really wants to look at. Their faults their guilt their demons. We all want to look elsewhere this country and how this country looks at the world has we have a fear of the outsider. A fear of.

Everything from terrorism to immigration. You know the very thing this country is founded on and the the thing that we do not face often enough is our part in what's wrong with the world.

John I had you on my podcast recently talking about your collective called scary black folks and we discussed a little bit about Jordan peels get out and his upcoming film us. But now US has hit theaters. People have had a week to see it and there's so many layers to it that I wanted to come back to you so that we could talk about it. Spoiler rich try to peel back a few of these layers so just to start off kind of what was your kind of gut reaction to it. What's your kind of capsule review.

Well after I've seen it you know I thought like the Thursday I thought on the release date you know I was I had this really kind of this relate to reaction to it. Yeah I think once the reveal of the switch sort of big happened that was the thing that really just kind of took my legs out. You know I didn't really see it coming. I think I I think I kind of thought about it for a second because the clues if you go back through it there are other clues about like thinking off kilter with red and Adelaide.

But yeah I think the whole horrific thing for me is number one you took away our protagonist because now you like Whoa what does that mean. Alexi is a bad person or she bit you know. So that's the thing it's like there really isn't a cut a clear cut person to root for. And I think that's what people have had such strong reaction to that is like the protagonist is taken from you and twist up on you and then automatically you're supposed to feel for the person who has been antagonists who's trying to get her life back to a certain degree.

So that was actually a really interesting kind of psychological play and I just instantly felt horrible for Adelaide being chained to that battered little girl that also kind of indicates that perhaps the shadows that tethers actually discovered that they can actually control their counterparts up top which I thought was actually a really interesting reveal as well. So overall I think like you know he's definitely grown as a storyteller and a filmmaker. I mean he took 20 million dollars and parent to this kind of extravaganza like 20 million dollar movie the way it was put together.

Some people have issues with pacing. I didn't really have that much had many issues with pacing. But I think overall I was kind of blown away by it. That was it really. It was definitely a step in this really expensive direction because he really could have told a more intimate story like he would get out and had it more about the family and have and as we talk about raising a double consciousness theory that's really easy. Forgive me for liking Dubois and double consciousness about race but to actually have this really broader discussion about class or the haves and the have nots or the inner demons that we kind of like struggle with on a day to day basis I mean that actually I think is a far more expansive way to look at what horror is really good at doing that with my initial thought.

So I see just an alert an initial reaction and you've got like all these different layers why am I had to go fire because I knew that he was going to come with like some kind of crazy like you know help people forget you know maybe they don't he's a comedian too right.

I was like the punch line right. The idea of horror and comedy are very very close closely connected to what you know when you go back blue and you look at key and peele comedies that they deal with uncanny a lot actually. They deal with these really outlandish notions they push it they're always pushing you know to these other things and so in front you know it's about the one upmanship and those particular things like what are the next level. But he kind of leveled up the fight like even even as the lighting in the film The choosing of these of these beautiful darkly Miller naked family of a darkly nominated family and how you light those people beautifully.

You know I'm looking at all the terror with oh my god Lupita looks amazing and it's like you know I can't like they've got it they've got to settle it out of the beautiful feathers with all the terrible ones that happen you know that kind of thing.

Well it was funny because I was feeling this connection to it follows and then I I found out that it was the same cinematographer and I'm going. That makes total sense total sense.

Oh yeah definitely. Yeah. It follows a really beautifully shot film to another really like level really disturbingly open ended up as other back to the people who didn't like us because there are people like yes right. They want the clothes and they want that kind of Westernised notion of like oh you know we kill the bad guys and it's over with. No no it's just beginning to actually end. We don't know what's about to happen and that's that's the horror of it. That's actually part of the terror. Yeah.

And so I think it definitely functions as a really well constructed very disturbing and beautiful horror film for some people if you go in thinking like this is the kickoff to Jordan peels. Twilight Zone reboot. Like you're better prepared for where it goes I think than if you go into it going like wow I loved get out and I hope he does another film like that.

Yeah. And I think that's the thing is like we are taught to be to consume media in a particular way like this kind of like in the sequel written based on that Hollywood is now we're thinking oh OK well I've been waiting for forever to see incredible to write. But you don't really want to be too different from the first a great movie you know right now.

And I'm like well no this is a very different type of film. Get out of the horror movie in a particular way. This is a different type of horror movie is more psychological it's more it's more for real actually people coming out with story logic like oh well you know where the clones come from you know and how you know why did they cook the rabbit. You know it's always like we were trying to read they're trying to wrestle with the story with the worldbuilding.

That's the other thing too is that we are living in a space where like we have these very intricate world of Harry Potter and Star Wars and Marvel and you know he's not coming at it from this particular standpoint it really is about messages and not necessarily about the minutia like no who cares where it came from. You've got to deal with them right. And they're here now and we don't honestly care about like you know how they how to eat rabbit every day you know. So these are things that people are coming up with and I think that some people say oh you know what this would be even a better theory because you get the bad cop you want that back matter.

You know I don't have any preconceived notions about the story. Okay well tell me a story. Let's see what happens. And I have a very wide berth when it comes to like suspension of disbelief. You know I'm a huge doctor who said I think you know say well it's like you know you have to have like a really serious sense of suspension of disbelief. I'm not trying to figure out a movie out either about a thing like some people that could come away with all the weather like that wasn't what I expected or you know I figured this movie ought to phone or you know that's not what I would have done.

And so those type of critiques are like well you know you do you deal with on a screen you know. What I was looking at this as well this is a very layered very interesting conversation about you know how other methods constructed. Right. And you know for people people who feel like well you know what's up with these cloned clones have kids the way we never they never said do what they call a tether. They called Shadows right. And that actually speaks to other more supernatural aspects that are necessarily connected to cloning you know.

Van how would they get out of then you thought my work is scientific then what are you thinking about how these calls get made. And I avoided and columns of called the of tethers or shadows shadow Shatner that's the that's the that's the pilot that they were speaking.

What's interesting to me too is that I coming out of a preview screening there were a number of people who were kind of like looking at it kind of strictly as a formula horror film in the sense of their going like Oh well I figured out the twist. Halfway through the movie or and it seems like even if I tell somebody what the twist is I feel like that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of what the film is really about. RAZ I feel like the fact that you find out that the little girls were switched at the beginning is and you don't discover this till the end is almost as much a kind of a break with trust with your audience as when Alfred Hitchcock killed Janet Leigh in the first 20 minutes because you kind of like you're you're thinking that this is the person that you're going to be empathizing with and identifying with all the way through till maybe the end.

And so what he does here is he makes you empathize with this character. And at the very end you find out she's the one who put the little girl in this underworld right and made her suffer in her place. Yes. And then it's like do I now switch allegiance.

Yeah you know it's just difficult. Now did you know Sam now.

And he also has a very complex narrative and I think you know that's exactly what I felt like the rug was pulled off modern you know that oh my God no. Yeah I mean it's a very difficult narrative. And it's like that's what that's what horror. That's a really interesting Zollo to play around with. And I think that again people have forgotten what horror is because of the jump scares and a sequel and the blood and the Gore that's a horror that's actually those that can be horror. But you know horror really is this the sense of affect that you have after watching something like that.

You know it's the feeling of dread and like on Eve and ennui that you leave the theater with a man that left my head up you know the first time I felt that would make when I could really understand what I was seeing was Angel Heart.

But when I watched Angel Heart something else back in high school I mean my friends like totally totally messed our heads will. Wait what do we do. What's the great ending you know. And if it's a problematic film but it's like you know it reminded me of this was like whoa you know what. I don't care about this other stuff I'm feeling for this little girl now who is now dead and skewered by and choked out by her her right. So that's who. Who enjoy doing it. You know that's like she almost like revelled in the freedom because she had been living with the dread of her finding her you know famous I feel like Who do you root for Yeah that was really well done I think.

And then it changes like if you look backwards it changes the kind of dread it was because when you start the film you think it's the dread of this like unknown that she doesn't know what this thing is. And then when we get to the end we realize that the dread was really connected to her facing the reality of who she really was and what she had really done. And it's like I'm politely different kind of dread.

Yeah yeah. Which is totally like symbolically displayed by the slow discoloration of her white clothing which she hasn't quite bit his pajama set or whatever and little by little she become covered with the basically the color that is her real name which is red. That the character's name Red. And so little by little she becomes the thing that she hates. She becomes a she starts to become you know that shadow person you know which I think is actually really well done to me so many different things about symbolism. You know another movie I thought about upstairs downstairs.

Yeah. You know because this is obviously too about class five like you know the haves and have not this kind of weird make mythology around like the mole people and people living under camera and stuff like that. Like you said a really interesting parable. But honestly when Adelaide she uses the term like once upon a time it becomes allegory to to me was like it changes the type of story it had once you said. Most of the time all bets were off because then it becomes a fairy tale. It becomes a parable or allegory.

And those things don't they're very much about all history and about like you know subverting this idea of the technical notions of how stories unfold events that I thought was really interesting too. She was telling us the story and she utilizes the term shadow thing about the idea like well what casts a shadow. So I thought I think about stuff like the trouble the cave you know something by younger an idea about how shadows are constructed you know with. You know it's work like how we see ourselves. This obviously is about these really really complex connections with the other.

You know I think about race in particular. You know I think a lot about the I always use the allegory of whether or the example of Peter Pan sees a shadow. Right.

But when you meet Peter Pan and Wendy he comes into the window in a cartoon and he's chasing a shadow he's trying to reconnect that show he's trying to tether himself back to the thing that defines him because a lot of times were defined by the things that we aren't right. And so this idea of like projecting ourselves into this darker space you know who do you root for these things are part of each other.

It reminds me also of that that star trek episode back to the day when Kirk split themselves. Yeah.

So there's one part that's all it and the other parties call it more ego and they really need each other to survive. It brings with these interesting ideas about like just an idea like the self but then of course like politically you know when you see the hands across America thing you're looking at like oh this is their color red. And they are looking at the human border wall or is this talking about redlining and sectioned off of space. Are we talking about manifest destiny. Are we talking about nativism. I mean you know these different conversations have got to happen when you see black bodies mark off space because it's always the connection between space and identity as well.

So we look at even look at the relationship between like the more like and the Eloy from like you know the first time a child from a story. So there's been a time machine so that there's always there's different connection that I think that he's kind of pointing out that aren't necessarily like the deepest connections but they're very complex connections. And I think that people are not ready to some people aren't ready to grasp those to work with those you know they want to be a team and say OK who are we for we kill the monster and we leave right there and he doesn't give you that.

And he gives you come and you leave actually more questions than you have.

And it's frustrating to some people but I love that about the film too. I want to play interview by it from Jordan Peele that's from the press kit that universal presents and here he talks a little bit about how he got into the idea of doppelgangers.

The idea for this movie came from a deep seated fear in doppelgangers. And I love the doppelganger mythologies and different movies that have dealt with them. And I just desperately wanted to make my offering to that sort of pantheon of of.

Of Evil double films.

I think what really made it come together for me that brought this idea together for me was this idea that we are our own worst enemy which is something I feel like we know intrinsically but it is a truth that we tend to bury we tend to blame the outsider and blame the other.

When for in this movie the monster has our faces.

JORDAN PEELE talks about how we can be our own worst enemies and what's what's complicated and interesting about that is the switch that happens with these little girls raises the idea of if that switch never happened would anyone like ever have been aware of kind of these two worlds because it seems like that the real Adelaide knowing what the world above is like then being in the world below is kind of the catalyst for this rebellion. That's right. And again it brings up multiple kind of interpretations about where your sympathies and empathy should lie.

Yeah definitely. So I came with this term called it was for copper to called the ethno Gothic I talked about I love it to one of the tried and true tropes of the Gothic of the doppelganger the mirror self the shadow self the and sometimes it's actually physical you know and sometimes it's more philosophical like a classic example like Batman and The Joker. For us that's really the same person. This is how they kind of go through how they present themselves and a lot of times the enemy so to speak which brings to mind that Jake Gyllenhaal film enemy you know you're talking about the idea of the mirror so something is slightly off kilter you know to go back to college you were bizarro Superman like you know the bizarro world of the world that is very similar to ours that's slightly off kilter so now we're talking about parallel universes and being of that nature we don't understand like the implications of what he was putting forth but he's he uses the doppelganger as the way to the technology to explore our inner demons so to speak.

And this is sort of a kind of thinking about my whole writing like you look at someone like Lovecraft when he was writing he was talking about these external cosmic forces or I think a lot of times we're talking about these internal these internal darkness that liquid inside mankind you know the inside man's psyche which I think can manifest itself as these twins the people who call them clones. But you know I've been trying to not come close and I'm like I'm not good at what they call them method of shadow that should have the tethers we don't understand the nature of their creation.

Are we generating them into this other universe or what have you. You know is the underworld like a different dimension. You know we have no idea I think at the end of the allegory is the most important thing that he is talking about these the struggles that we have. You know when you're creating the other. The other is a part of it you know the other is projected on to a subject and we objectified the subject that that's the nature of othering. And then you give all these attributes to that particular other that you've created.

Most of the time the negative you know that kind of thing. But you carry around that other with you.

I was thinking about the German folktale Peter for me all about this guy and Peter for me that fills his foot is his shadow to the devil. And so you know people are creeped out by him because he doesn't cast a shadow.

And so he ends up being ostracized and treated like he's evil because you know what. What are you without your shadow. And that's that was what I was going to talk about this idea Peter Pan and his shadow. He's trying to require it. So it gives him meaning you know they talk about like I'm tethering blackness or whiteness for us right. What is whiteness without a shadow and or what is man.

But I wonder what is being straight without queerness that these types of things either or poor or rich these these things are intimately connected and that's why I like the term tethering you know because these these ideas are are polar opposites of each other but also intertwined with each other.

Well and I wonder if some people who don't like the film are like really embracing it if part of what peels kind of point is is that we have to stop pointing the finger at something else and we have to start looking inside ourselves to find out what's wrong that that is a very difficult kind of thing for a lot of people to be willing to do to look and say like OK these problems don't come from outside they're coming in from their internal.

Yeah exactly. It. And I think that is actually more scary than any market you can come up with dealing with what's in the mirror. Yeah that's a very good point. I think that that's unsettling enough what makes this a great horror movie. It's a very articulate kind of exploration of human nature. People will write off of trash or this is terrible. But I when he was scared of a then you should really sit with the film or think about what a failure.

Yeah okay. It was disturbing don't know. It was unsettling.

And that horror that's death what horror. You know horror is the aspect of it. You know you have dread you have repulsion which is kind like the physical reaction to the thing that is terrible you know which is a lot of times it's like people are retching Oh what is that smell. That's the repulsion of the physical. But then you have terror which is like the fear of bodily harm. Right. You know you're being terrified that Obama cut off your leg OK. The horror is what happens when the leg gets cut off.

No. Jordan Peele did give his actors a list of 10 films to watch that he said he wanted them to see before they started working on the film. You know you have a film like a tale of two sisters which is this Korean horror film but it's very clear it's twins it's this sense of mirror images and you know it has a supernatural edge right. When natural underpinning too Yeah that's a good movie right now another one that has some obvious connections is as we've mentioned it follows which shares the same cinematographer.

It's beautifully shot and your kind of discomfort comes from the contrast between kind of this surface beauty and this horror you're feeling right.

And the relentlessness of it too is that you know whatever it is it's relentless.

Know they do is that it's not running out the US Betty sort of dread is always that's what makes it follow so great. You know you're like What is this. And you the only person that sees a piece of that is mental it's like wait a minute. Am I really experiencing this.

You know that kind of thing. So does it follow the great Well my favorite horror was the last decade or so.

Yeah I feel like it really is a kindred spirit to us and a lot of ways it is.

Yeah because the sense of dread and relentlessness like you don't really understand the machinations of the parent you know and they don't really and they don't talk and they're like wait what do you look like. It doesn't talk. You know whatever it is. And also you don't know if they successfully kill it right.

It's not a happy ending. Another one he mentions is the Bob Duke. And though this is a film about Duke man which I love because I being a film critic I get to see films very early. And so all I knew about it was kind of that it was presented as a film kind of about the boogey man. And it turns out to be something much deeper in that it's really about how do you deal with grief and loss. And so US seems to have the same quality of seeming to be about a trope which is you know like these doppelgangers are coming after you and it's scary.

And then it seems to have a much deeper meaning about something that stays with you kind of no matter what you do.

Yeah that's totally true. That particular story is brilliant and that's the one.

This was one of the the the films that I argued with my students. You know I teach a class on like race and horror. I was talking about the Bob Duke and emotion and look how monsters are created. So yeah. So the Bob Duke actually is a really great way to talk about grief and loss. And so the students are like well why know why is the monster still with them not the world because you can't ever get real grief. It's a mark so that actually is ever present for that cafe.

Well I know you have to get going. Is there any final words you want to say about the film.

I think that it bears second viewing especially because of the trick ending in actually two characters is going to play a trick on you. I always think at the rabbit as a trickster. So you have to show that afoot. And I think the rabbit as this really like really interesting and kind of symbol that trickery is happening and is weird like confluence is you know things that are happening like the eleven eleven you know on the clock and the way that Frisbee aligned itself that makes me believe that something else outside of science is happening in a some kind of supernatural weirdness was happening and I think that's the other thing that people can't really wrap their heads around.

What is the speculative thing that's happening. It's science and maybe the supernatural or something like that. So that's why I don't like the idea call clones a reference. That idea. So I think that yeah this is a film that actually bears multiple viewing maybe you know from some research of five like you know how these particular things are kind of interacting off each other. But I like films like that. I love watching films but I can't wait to see more things. I want to go back and see it again with the knowledge that the two doppelgangers because the two doppelgangers like what that also begs the question of which one is real.

Which one is the original. That's the other thing that's so very interesting shell game that he plays with us like. I think that he he does a really offering bait and switch where he says OK we have this world that built but that actually isn't the thing that's important what's really important is the relationship between Adelaide and red. Right. Right. So that's yeah I think that's the thing that people have to really kind of sit with what it means to actually deal with the demons inside of ourselves. And I think you did a great job at doing that.

I want to see it again really really soon.

And it's interesting because that's the only pair that knows kind of what's going on to a certain degree because the other doppelgangers seem to kill their twins very quickly like in the house with the white family is there's not a hesitation but when red comes in there's almost this like you need to face me and and we need to kind of come to terms with a lot of things whereas the other doppelganger.

How would he want to have you want to understand like this there's a dialogue you want that would also you know that. And to some degree that is her undoing because she wants to have this dialogue and he really she could have finished her at any given time the ballet martial arts day that they were doing in the hallway. Great.

All right. Well I'm sorry you have to go but thank you so much for talking with me about us.

Oh yeah for sure for sure. No this was my pleasure.

That was UC Riverside professor John Jennings. He was recently on the podcast talking about his collective called scary black folks. I urge you to check out that episode to hear more of his ideas about black horror. Thanks for listening to another episode of cinema Junkie podcast. Till our next film fix on that. Your resident cinema junkie.

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place