Us Review: What happens when our shadows run free? And what the hell is with the rabbits?
WARNING TO THE READER:
I have done my best to keep spoilers out of this review. It would — however — be impossible to affect my interpretation of Us without a few of them. That said, I thank you for reading The 405 Film section (as always), but I would most recommend reading this review AFTER you see Us, if you’re planning to — which you really should be. The film is really best approached cold and meditated on after viewing.
If you’re fine with that warning, read on.
Are humans ever born evil? Or are they made evil?
The nature versus nurture debate has long raged in science, philosophy and art. Indeed, thinking on the question has also forged central areas of thought in early psychology — which seemed to take the stance that evil and good are partitioned in the human psyche into what becomes one’s personality.
That great but flawed early psychologist Sigmund Freud called the dark part of the human psyche “the id.” The id in his psychoanalytic theory of personalityoperates on purely instinctual drives, and seeks to satisfy these base, primitive needs as quickly as possible because it operates on the Pleasure Principlewhich seeks to maximize pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible.
In Freudian theory, the id is balanced out by the seat of morality and inhibitory (and thus very controlling) “superego” and “the ego” which seeks to moderate the drives of the id and the often controlling nature of the superego. The ego is essentially caught in the middle of the two. It is the conscious part of the personality under Freud’s model (although not all parts of the ego are conscious).
Swiss psychiatrist (and former friend and collaborator of Freud’s) Carl Jungtook a different approach to the central question here. He conceived of our dark side as “the Shadow” — which, like the id, is totally separate from our conscious personality (what he also called “the ego” with other parts — which Jung conceived of as archetypes or innate tendencies that mold and transform the individual consciousness — like “the Persona”).
The Shadow is composed of instinctual drives but also whatever we may consciously deem unacceptable — drives like power, lust, domination, greed, envy, wrath… murder. All these things get pushed into the Shadow. As Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe said, the shadow essentially is the “sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life”.
It is thus interesting — and immediately piqued my attention as a longtime student of Jung’s writings — that Jordan Peele as the writer of Us decided to use the term “shadow” to describe the doppelgängers of the family in the film: dad, Gabe Wilson (shadow named Abraham) — played by Winston Duke; mom, Adelaide Wilson (shadow named Red) — a tour de force performance from Lupita Nyong’o — we ultimately get our understanding of what’s happening principally from Adelaide and Red; daughter Zora Wilson (shadow named Umbrae) — played by Shahadi Wright Joseph; son, Jason Wilson (shadow named Pluto) — played by Evan Alex.
So, in essence what is happening in Us, is (at first) a home invasion thriller with the shadows as invaders (and all that means symbolically). It is here that we see some of what we can presume were cinematic influences here too: Michael Haneke’s Funny Games immediately came to mind, as did (paradoxically) 2008’s The Strangers. But that is — of course — far from the totality of Us.
Peele’s deft hand as director is really evident throughout, even when the home invasion part of the film is ostensibly over. He effortlessly and perfectly guides the film over a razor’s edge of tension. One can only speculate that he learned the art of perfect timing in the comedy he’s done. As Jonathan Kite (another creative with experience in both genres) told me in our interview (which you can read here):
“In general, I think that comedy always serves horror. I think that they’re extreme emotions being … Getting yourself to laugh is a natural reaction and being scared and jumping is a natural reaction. And, they’re both, they’re both shared experiences. Which is why, I think, comedies and horrors do so well in large groups because you scare one, you’re probably gonna scare everyone in the theater. Or you get one person to laugh, a lot of people are probably gonna laugh.”
Which is another interesting part of Us: there is a good amount of effective (and overt) comedy here. It very effectively balances out the tension throughout. It is also for this reason that people who don’t do well with horror should not be dissuaded from catching Us in the theater: Peele knows almost intuitively when the audience needs a break in a moment of levity.
Of course, the film does evolve from the point of the home invasion. Which gets to the social statement inherent in Us — and, indeed, the USA’s zeitgeist right now — what would happen if all our shadows were running around in bodies that look exactly like ours but are paradoxically untethered from ourselves? With Donald Trump in the White House despite scandal after scandal and him showing some of the worse penchants of humanity (even with the summary of the Mueller Report finally being out and saying that the Report “did not establish” Russian collusion) — and the President’s penchants for the horrible not phasing many of his supporters — the premise of Us fits the times we are living in like the gloves the red jumpsuit-clad shadows all wear.
But there is still more fertile psychological fodder at play in Us. What happens when we use violence to combat the evil, violent and base? Circumstances — nurture — paradoxically can make us more like what we’re fighting when we do that. We too can be debased.
This nature versus nurture theme becomes ever more prevalent as we progress through the film and towards the ultimate twist which evokes yet another great film that revolves around the idea of the doppelgänger or double: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The variable of madness as a central force affecting the behavior of the shadows is also thrown in.
Beautifully cerebral social horror is what Us ultimately is. It probes the psychology of the individual and abstracts that to the social in a very eloquent — and highly entertaining — way. Some reviewers — however — felt a little intimidated by those cerebral qualities.
For instance, many were fussing over the meaning of the rabbits in Us. I think the symbolism here is pretty straightforward though: first, when Red tells her fairy tale during the home invasion part, she speaks of having to eat raw, white rabbit as Adelaide would eat food. This suggests the idea of the white rabbit being equal to a white lamb or white dove in symbolism — innocence, moral purity, goodness. The shadow by definition thrives on the evil or that which destroys the innocent, morally pure and good.
Second, rabbits are also often the prototypical animal for visual similarity among individuals in a species of animal in nature. This gets to the scientific side of the doppelgänger and its possibilities in nature. To quote my original article looking at the science and history behind the doppelgänger before Uscame out (read it here):
“Science has proffered a number of explanations for the doppelgänger phenomenon. The evolutionary one basically says that because you don’t see much of the diversity between how individuals look in other species, it really isn’t surprising to think there’s someone who looks exactly like you somewhere. For instance, can you really tell two squirrels [substitute rabbits] apart? Thus goes this explanation that maybe we are to some degree, just seeing what we want to see there, and that diversity does not really exist — at least, not to the level we believe. Ergo, there could be someone out there who looks exactly like you. The possibility of the genetic lottery randomly combining the same options a number of times also adds credence to this idea.
Still, other studies have pegged the likelihood of an exact doppelgänger as about 1 in 1 trillion. And even if there was a higher likelihood, this explanation really doesn’t say anything about the malevolence that is so often ascribed to the doppelgänger.”
In summation: go see Us. There are less than a handful of films that evoke all these questions in such an incredible, entertaining and moving way. Us is insanely cerebral, superbly-conducted psychological and social horror that — in my view — eclipses the also superb Get Out.
That $70.3 million opening — the third-biggest horror opening of all time (behind It and the newest iteration of Halloween) — is only the start to a film that has the aesthetic and cultural potential to go much further.
Cheers to that. Cheers to seeing what else Peele has in store for us too.