What happens when our shadows run free? And what is with those rabbits?
(Screenshot from 'Us' trailer).
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 my work (as always), but I would most recommend reading this review AFTER you see 'Us', if you have not already — which you really should. The film is really best approached cold and meditated on after viewing. Stream 'Us' here on HBO Max.
If you’re fine with that warning, read on.
I. Nature Versus Nurture.
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.
II. Freud and the Psycho-Analytic View
Sigmund Freud called the dark part of the human psyche “the id.” The id in his psychoanalytic theory of of personality operates on instinctual drives, and seeks to satisfy these base, primitive needs as quickly as possible. This is where Freud's idea of the Pleasure Principle - which seeks to maximize pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible - comes in to play.
In Freudian theory, the id is balanced out by the seat of morality and inhibitory thinking called the “superego”. The superego is thus the very controlling part of one's psyche.
The superego is separate from “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 most conscious part of the personality under Freud’s model (although not all parts of the ego are conscious).
III. Carl Jung's View.
Swiss psychiatrist (and former friend and collaborator of Freud’s) Carl Jung took 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”.
IV. The Jungian View and 'Us'.
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.
The 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: Michael Haneke’s 'Funny Games' (which can be streamed via HBO Max here, it's a fantastic slow-burn horror piece in its own right) immediately came to mind, as did ( somewhat paradoxically, considering the title) 2008’s 'The Strangers' (a home invasion horror flick that does a great job at striking the correct ambiance, it can be rented on Amazon Prime here). But that is — of course — far from the totality of 'Us'.
V. Horror and Comedy
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 'Us' 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 an interview:
“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': Peele knows almost intuitively when the audience needs a break in a moment of levity.
VI. Social Horror and the Doppelgänger
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 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 'Us' came out:
“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.”
VII. Final Verdict
In summation: you owe it to yourself to 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'. I give 4.5 of 5 stars.
Cheers to that. Cheers to seeing what else Peele has in store for us too.