Written by Shini Meyer Wang.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
Ripe with relevance, symbolism, and nuance, director Jordan Peele’s second horror hit holds a mirror up to us, prodding at our neglected awareness of the monsters within as individuals and as a society. A theme of duplicity not only saturates the story, but also its structure. Two narratives make up the film as a whole — Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) traumatic past of when she was a little girl and the present timeline of grown-up Adelaide and her family. Jordan Peele, a comedian who has amassed notoriety from his sketch show Key & Peele, may seem like an unexpected genius for horror, but it is his same command over laughter that extends to his control over another primal reaction, fear. His ability to make fun of people of all backgrounds in his sketches translates into the shrewd social commentary of this film. Peele’s cross between a horror movie and social thriller is his own original screenplay that revolves around the happenings of a Black family, protagonists who have been wholly unrepresented in this genre.
In the past, little Adelaide dawdles around Santa Cruz’s boardwalk amusement park as her presumably separated parents bicker about looking after their daughter without actually keeping an eye on her. Unstopped by her parent’s inattentiveness, Adelaide is drawn away from the screaming commotion of the booths and rides as if by some hypnotic force, down some stairs to an unattended funhouse on the beach. Already, I feel queasy, anticipating what Adelaide will encounter. She meanders deep into the forest-themed mirrored halls until the electricity abruptly cuts out, along with the generic bird calls and tree rustling that had relieved me of tension for those few seconds. Now, the hall is dark, the space eerily more hollow, the red exit sign multiplied and distorted across the many mirrors. Adelaide, stumbles backwards into one of the mirrors after her futile efforts to find a way out. She turns around expecting to once again see her reflection staring back at her. Well, it’s there, but it’s not staring back. Her reflection’s body is turned away from her, her gaze falling on the back of her own head. It hits me what I’m seeing as Adelaide’s eyes gradually widen in shock. The scene cuts out.
Next, grown-up Adelaide is on a car journey to Santa Cruz; her husband, Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), in the driver’s seat. Her playfully snarky teenage daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), is on her phone in the backseat with her younger brother, Jason, who is persisting at landing a magic trick. The typical family arrives at Santa Cruz beach and walks single-file toward their friends, their thin shadows stretching across the sand. Adelaide, unnerved by returning to the origin of her childhood trauma, stiffly sits in her beach chair, ready to leave. Afterwards, her day piles up with coincidences. A frisbee lines up perfectly when it lands on the blue spot of her beach towel. The clock reads 11:11, which is also the score of the football game her husband is watching. So many of these details, delivered under a mundane guise, have meaning and like this, Peele crafts a net of symbolic imagery that misleads us on what we should and should not pay attention to.
That night, Adelaide knows something is coming, something to do with the other her from all those years ago. Unlike the horror protagonists, who begin to trust their instincts when there is no more time left to escape, Adelaide is already calling the police when Jason notifies her of another family in their driveway. This family, the Red family, violently breaks into their home and corners the panic-stricken Wilsons onto the couch, confirming Adelaide’s trepidations to be true. The Reds are exact carbon copies of the Wilsons. Well, not quite. The Reds each don a red jumpsuit, one leather glove with menacingly sharp scissors in hand. Their demeanors are off-kilter, cold. Adelaide’s also grown-up doppȅlganger speaks in a guttural, quavering voice about the shadow people trapped underground, starved of sunlight, surviving off of raw rabbit meat, paralleling a lesser version of life above. An abandoned government experiment gone wrong, they have now returned to take back what they deserve and to make a statement of their deserving humanity.
We discover it is not just the Wilsons whose doppȅlgangers have arisen to take over. On the news, more and more shadow people are emerging from the sewers to slaughter their look-alikes. Through the window of the car that the Wilson’s use to escape, shadow people are seen joining hands, forming a chain across the landscape like some kind of demonstration. In an effort to survive, the Wilsons brutally fight back, none more than Adelaide devolving slightly into the savage tendencies of the enemy they are fighting against. Toward the end of the movie, the Wilson’s have escaped and murdered their doubles, however, miles upon miles of victorious doppȅlgangers, hand-in-hand, span across the rolling hills of America.
I am left perplexed by whether I should be moved or unsettled by this display of solidarity. Who was I meant to be rooting for? Peele’s film leaves some ambiguity as a conversation starter after the movie. A friend and I eventually formulate that as the story unravels, we see the surface dwellers living thoughtless privileged lives until they are disrupted by the revolt of a condemned people — a people who are, in fact, united, hardworking dreamers. At first, I am uncomfortable about how interchangeable the labels of protagonist and antagonist are, but it is ironically foreseen that our expectations are played against since they’re manipulated throughout the entire film. We are left with a final twist: the confrontational conclusion that the antagonists at the top of the class system marginalize and other a group that share their humanity. These antagonists, who are so detached from the knowledge of their privilege, from the toil of those in developing countries, are Us, are the United States.