by Alvin G. Burstein
Jordan Peele’s follow-up, Us, to his highly acclaimed Get Out shares its predecessor’s blend of horror and comedy, but is more thought provoking. Race is not a critical focus for this second film. Us left me thinking about the relationships among horror, terror and the surreal. The ethical questions it raises are not about race, but about cloning, raised by invoking the agesold eerie fascination with doppelgangers. That it intends to provoke moral unease is evidenced by the opening reference to Jeremiah, 11:11. There Jeremiah, the angriest of the biblical prophets, thunders, “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” In other words, “God is not forgiving.” That is a view alien to contemporary Western religion.
Horror flics present the audience with scenes that are shocking, on the edge of repellant, but do not directly impact the viewer. Terror, on the other hand, is an internal state, panic on steroids, anxiety exploded into a meltdown of the ability to function. Why is the genre a huge money-maker in the entertainment biz? The psychoanalytic pioneer, Ottto Rank, argued that the experience of being born is overwhelmingly traumatic. One is pummeled out of uterine placidity, a cushioned function like today’s near self-driving autos, into a new space of glare and clatter, gasping, for the first time, for breath. Absent verbal capacity to record, this unspeakable terror remains buried in our minds, emerging only in highly attenuated forms. Horror flics, like rollercoasters, provide a way of playing with terror, a form of catharsis. Surrealism is the label for the plastic arts or literature that deliberately violate logic and physical laws. Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis come to mind. Surrealism plucks at the strings of terror, forcing us into a struggle to understand, to defy confusion, to defuse the threat of incomprehension.
To explain this surreal film would be a contradiction in terms. I can label some of its disparate elements, in addition to the elements named above. There are opening references to realities like the existence of myriad abandoned tunnels under our continent and the 1968 happening of six or seven million Americans literally joining hands across the continent. There is also a reference to a fictional failed government effort to clone humans for military purposes. There is a bloodied prophet holding a ragged sign containing a reference to the prophet’s jeremiad. There are cages full of laboratory rabbits. There are dopplegangers trying to stab to death their originals and, later, forming a human chain across Santa Cruz. And there is a fairground Hall of Mirrors with a marquee bearing the words Find Yourself.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to add that the plot unfolds when the protagonist, as a young child, strays from her family, enters the hall of mirrors, and falls down that rabbit hole. And a final question: Is Us a surreal mockery of Jeremiah’s ranting, or a jeremiad directed at us?