Us behind-the-scenes

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Jordan Peele’s Us explains itself too much and that’s a big problem.)

Note: Us hits Blu-ray and DVD today, but this article assumes you have already seen it. Spoilers ahead.

Mysteries are hard to write. A good mystery needs a compelling opening hook and a satisfying or shocking conclusion, but more importantly, it needs to parcel out the right amount of connecting information, at the right pace. Can the audience follow the story? Do they get ahead of the characters, or solve the clues right alongside them? Do they get confused? Is that intentional or unintentional?

Jordan Peele’s Us is horror first and social commentary second, but it contains more than a little mystery. Opening with young Adelaide discovering a “mirror” version of herself, it continues to puzzle the audience with the years-later appearance of Adelaide’s complete mirror family. Mirror Adelaide, labeled Red in the credits, calls these people the Tethered, and her exact origins and motivations are revealed over the rest of the film. Twists abound.

Us’ script is structured in a way that seems designed specifically for today’s age of YouTube explainer videos, “Things You Missed” articles, and Reddit fan-theory boards. And yet, even understanding that the film demands active, participatory thought from its audience, the film’s story is missing clarity. But Us’ issue isn’t that it doesn’t explain itself enough.

Rather, Us explains itself too much.

Us’ audience buys into the existence of the Tethered from the beginning. As with the fantastic elements of any number of fellow horror films, the audience simply accepts the Tethered. They’re just there, underground, looking like us but not entirely acting like us. We suspend our disbelief, because we understand that’s the implicit contract between the work and the audience. Red’s first, fairy-tale monologue is all we need: “once upon a time, there was a girl, and the girl had a shadow.” Instantly, we get it.

Until the third act, the Tethered remain a mystery whose details are less important than its meaning. The moment Red starts explaining her hypothesis about their government-created origins is the moment confusion sets in. Red’s engaging with the concept’s internal logic forces us to do the same, and just as it doesn’t add up for her, it doesn’t for us either. Her dialogue offers just enough information to introduce countless new questions as to why the Tethered exist, how they live, how she coordinates them, and so on. Us never answers those CinemaSins-style questions, nor should it – but they should never have been asked in the first place.

Consider a continuum of plot explanation. At one end sits something like Inception, where characters expound at length on the nitty-gritty of the world’s mechanics. At the other, you might find Episode 8 of Twin Peaks’ third season: an almost entirely abstract work with no plainly-stated meaning. Us sits smack in the middle, explaining too much to remain ambiguous and open to interpretation, but too little to make literal, physical sense.

This is a common conundrum for storytellers. In conventional narratives, and especially mysteries, storytelling is effectively a measured doling-out of information. How much information do you reveal, and when? Reveal too little, and the audience gets left behind (or worse, bored). Reveal too much, and the audience gets too far ahead of the characters (or worse, overwhelmed). High-concept material like Us is particularly tricky, as it’s not always clear to what extent audiences will accept a strange core conceit out of the box.

Trickiest of all is that every time you add information, the window of the story’s narrative and thematic possibilities closes just a little. In a mystery with a firm “solution,” like a murder mystery, that guides the audience’s puzzle-solving. In something like Us, though, where the mystery is more about motivation and meaning and metaphor, it narrows the film’s scope. We don’t need to know how the Tethered came to be. What’s important is the relationship between Red and Adelaide, and how that demonstrates the film’s broader ideas. This third-act exposition, however speculative on the part of Red, only muddies an otherwise clear intent.

As director, Jordan Peele wrung every bit of potential out of this version of the script. But the script itself probably needed another draft or two. It feels unsure whether it’s a naturalistic horror movie or an uncanny one, never truly committing to either approach. While the majority of the movie works as a metaphysical horror film, the introduction of an origin story renders the metaphysical physical, and shifts the genre from horror into borderline science fiction. In Get Out, he struck a perfect balance: we’re told merely that brain transplants happen in that world, and we accept it. If the script discussed the particulars of the transplant operation, it’d lose simplicity, elegance, and thematic focus – exactly what happens in Us.

It’s essentially an Uncanny Valley for storytelling.

How did this issue (an issue I’ve heard echoed by many) come to be? There are three potential reasons. One, Peele executed his vision exactly, and it’s flawed. Two, Universal demanded the insertion of some explanation for lowest-common-denominator audiences. Three, Universal rushed Us into production after Get Out became a hit, and Peele didn’t have time to properly polish his screenplay. In all of these possibilities, either a decision was made to clarify too much of the story, or a decision wasn’t made to rein the exposition back.

In all aspects of life, if you answer one question, more questions follow and that’s doubly true in storytelling. Generally, clarity is paramount, but sometimes, paradoxically, less detail can bring more clarity. Audiences innately understand characters and concepts through images, performances, and sound, even if they can’t pinpoint why. With every frame, our brains make connections and deductions, and exposition can confuse or contradict them.

It’s perplexing that a movie that’s otherwise filled with such skilled storytelling would throw such a spanner into its works. Whatever the reason, here’s hoping Jordan Peele (and his producers!) put a touch more trust in the audience next time. Peele’s ideas are strong – he didn’t win his Oscar for nothing – but if they could just breathe a little more, they’d climb out of that uncanny valley and scale mountains.

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