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The Unbreakable Structure of Jordan Peele’s First Two Films

Avery dissects and analyzes Peele's two eerily connected films.

When Jordan Peele’s sophomore horror film Us graced cinemas a couple of months ago, an obvious point of discourse was how it compared to his Academy Award-winning debut Get Out. Comparisons are arguably unfair (I believe there was actually an entire article written for this website about that exact topic), and in short: they’re both fantastic. So, really, it doesn’t matter which is so-called “better”. With that said, since March, I haven’t been able to get out of my head just how comparable the two films are in terms of their structure. While on the surface differing vastly in their subject matter, Get Out and Us hit many of the same beats, both visually and narratively. This is not a criticism, in fact, it’s the exact opposite; a testament to just how well Peele has hit the ground running in establishing the individualized style and functioning of his stories.

I know the last thing that the internet needs is another unreserved delve into the study of cinematic parallelsTM, but I simply cannot withhold myself from linking these two films together any longer, so bear with me.

The Cold Open

Us (2019) // Get Out (2017) – source: Monkeypaw productions

With Peele originating from a sketch comedy background, it’s understandable that the introductions to both his horror efforts feel remarkably similar to what you’d see at the opening of a TV sit-com. Out of context, unpredictable, intrigue dripping across every frame, and in this case, utterly frightening. In Get Out, it was LaKeith Stanfield’s Andre wandering dark suburban streets in silence while a car ominously stalks him from a shadowy backdrop. In Us, it was (who we learn later to be) young Adelaide diverging away from her troubled parents at a carnival, then coming face-to-face with a monstrous reflection. Granted, this isn’t an attribute that’s new to horror films, but something about the way Peele does it is wholly distinct – how his camera restfully slithers along with its subject, with background noises drowned out to narrow the focus even further.

Not only are both sequences remarkable examples of developing tension in a scene, but each of them also act as the perfect tease for their eventual messages; Peele’s booming, symphonic crescendos. In Get Out‘s case, of course, that quietly looming car is a simplified representation of the inescapable systemic racism in America, and in Us, that spooky house of mirrors is the first suggestion that perhaps the world’s worst enemy is the self.

Overture and Tone Reversal

Get Out (2017) // Us (2019) – source: Monkeypaw productions

“Overture” might be a strong word. They’re not quite the 8+ minute orchestral pieces that you’d see preceding an opera show, or a 3.5-hour historical epic from the 1950s, but Get Out‘s “Sikiliza” and Us‘s “Anthem” are undeniably memorable, and frankly perfect musical pieces to place over their cryptic opening credits sequences. They’re equally off-putting and catchy (the sheer quantity of memes that erupted from “Anthem” should be sufficient evidence for that), and absolutely jaw-dropping extensions of the tone established in their cold opens – stretching out that electric intrigue with boisterous ease.

What’s more, however, are the abrupt reversals of tone that immediately succeed the opening credits, once again realized through hard-hitting musical needle-drops. Respectively, Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” and Janelle Monae’s “I Like That” effectively flip Get Out and Us from their initial horror-rooted introductions into their smooth, de-centred, personal sides. Syncing these tracks to our first close-up meetings with Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris and Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide only emphasize this. Right away, before any plot has even occurred, we understand that A) we’re going to adore these characters, and B) some serious shit is coming for them.

Road Trip to Terror

Us (2019) // Get Out (2017) – source: Monkeypaw productions

Probably the most obvious similarity exists in the scenes toward the beginning of both films that feature the main characters (Rose and Chris in Get Out, and the Wilson family in Us) embarking on their journeys away from home. Us actually has two of these scenes – going to the cottage and going to the beach – but both aptly fit the mould.

Tight, playful, and incredibly written banter establishes the personalities and dynamics at play, but importantly, a mist of unease rests beneath. Said unease is given a chance to come forth in both cases, as Rose and Chris strike a deer with their car then deal with an implicitly racist police officer, and as the Wilsons inconsequentially argue over politics, environmental issues, and the dodgy subtext of Luniz’s “I Got 5 On it”. As a final note, both groups are travelling to destinations that represent an indwelling fear of the protagonists – in Chris’ case, his girlfriend’s white family, and in Adelaide’s case, the place where she stumbled upon herself many years earlier.

Looking into the Eyes of Evil

Us (2019) // Get Out (2017) – source: Monkeypaw productions

People were already pointing out this visual parallel on the Christmas Day release of Us‘s first teaser trailer. The wide, bloodshot eyes, the pronounced streams of tears, the quivering, speechless lips – about as pure as a face of fear can get, and prominent demonstrations of Kaluuya and Nyong’o’s fantastic performances. What’s most interesting, though, is what Chris and Adelaide are reacting to.

Us (2019) // Get Out (2017) – source: Monkeypaw productions

Prior to these memorable extreme close-ups, Missy Armitage and Red respectively lead Chris and Adelaide through a mind-track of guilt. Missy lectures Chris about how he should feel responsible for his mother’s death, and Red tells the story of the shadow, who had to experience all the same major life events as Adelaide, only reduced to far more gruesome and torturous levels. Obviously the blame is not warranted in either case, but it probes insecurities possessed by Chris and Adelaide that date back to their childhoods, firmly digging into their greatest fears. Then: Adelaide must look into Red’s eyes once again, the precise situation she wanted to avoid on her family’s vacation; and Chris must enter the sunken place, the never-ending dark void that represents oppression in its most horrifying and physically tangible form.

[SIDE NOTE: I think there’s a discussion to be had regarding privilege and empathy in how the Tethered must experience horribly undesirable versions of everything their American counterparts experience. In a way, Peele is pointing out that for every American who gets to eat sweet carnival food, a person elsewhere in the world is eating raw meat because that’s all that is available; for every American who lovingly gives birth to a child, there’s a person elsewhere who must have a child they didn’t ask for, and maybe even can’t properly support; for every American who marries happily and glamorously, there is a marriage elsewhere that exists by forcing together two people who don’t love each other; etcetera. I believe this is partly in-line with what I see as the movie’s intended message, (which I’ll talk about later), however, I don’t know if this exact interpretation was intentional. Please, leave a comment if you have any input on this!]

Complications and Questions

Get Out (2017) // Us (2019) – source: Monkeypaw productions

This is where the fun stuff happens. Chris sits through another awkward dinner with Rose’s family, the Wilsons each face off against their Tethered counterparts, Andre reappears and is now married to an old woman and implores Chris to “get out!“, the Tyler family is murdered by their doppelgängers, the rich old people hold a very out-of-the-ordinary auction in the Armitage’s back yard, the Wilsons see news reports of a country-wide apocalypse and apparent recreation of the Hands Across America event, Chris finds photos of Rose with other people she previously brought home to her family…you get the idea.

Altogether, this section of both films contains some of the best horror sequences of the decade (my personal favorite between the two is probably Winston Duke’s Gabe trying to outwit himself on the speedboat). What makes them so good? I’d point to the constant balance between hilarity and terror, which is so seamless it’s insane. Each sequence effectively raises your heart rate then leaves you with burning questions so weird and specific, you can’t help but chuckle.

Entering the Underground

Us (2019) // Get Out (2017) – source: Monkeypaw productions

“Entering the underground” has two meanings here: first, this is where both protagonists are made aware of the secret underground world that drives the forces they’ve been fighting against; and this is also where the protagonists literally go underground to the lower level of the locations that they fear (both the Armitage house and the house of mirrors). This structural element is very closely-knit with what’s next…

Questions Answered (and it’s pretty messed up)

Us (2019) // Get Out (2017) – source: Monkeypaw productions

As they enter the underground, they become captive, and finally all is revealed.

In Get Out, we learn that the Armitage family for years have been using a complex surgical procedure to transfer the elderly brains of themselves and their colleagues into the bodies of young African Americans. Conceptually, this revelation is all at once highly original, terrifying, and sickening. The most terrifying part about it, though, is the one detail that ties it into the film’s message about systemic racism. As explained by Stephen Root’s Jim Hudson, Chris and the other victims being black has nothing to do with anything – it’s just the way they’ve always done things. This is where Peele shocks us more than any other moment in the film, boldly displaying the truths of how racism dwells so unconsciously and implicitly in America that even a horrific fantasy element such as the Armitage’s surgical procedure wouldn’t open eyes to racist biases.

The revelation in Us is similarly messed up, but more politically charged. We learn that long ago, the government made replicas of every American citizen that exhibited all their physical attributes, but contained no soul. For a totalitarian government, this would probably be ideal – they’d be given the opportunity to control their citizens without any regard for emotions. However, the government found no good use for them, and they were left in the tunnels, left tethered to their above-world matches for eternity. When Adelaide started dancing, the Tethered saw a sliver of hope in what it might be like to have a soul, and finally they had what they needed to plan an uprising. A lot is said in this, and it’s definitely way more open for interpretation than what Get Out says. In simplest terms, I believe Peele is saying that we as a society have come to prioritize such inconsequential and meaninglessly materialistic things that we’ve lost sight of the truly human qualities that ignite our soul, and as I mentioned earlier, perhaps also our privilege.

The Final Shot that Makes you Existentially Reflect on your own Way of Thinking

Get Out (2017) // Us (2019) – source: Monkeypaw productions

(The shot from Us above is not actually the film’s final shot, but it’s the closest shot to the ending that I was able to find.)

If you didn’t buy into the message that Peele put out in his grand expository revelation, this is where he tests you – making you see within yourself that the societal inefficiency he’s exploiting does, in fact, exist. Returning to what I called them earlier, these moments are Peele’s booming, symphonic crescendos.

In Get Out, Chris has just made his triumphant escape. He evaded the Armitages, cleverly used his camera trick, defeated Walter and Georgina…but then a police car pulls up. We think, “shit, it’s the cop from earlier, and he’s going to shoot Chris.” Nope. It’s just Rod. But when we assume that it is going to be the racist cop from the beginning of the film, Peele has made us see in our own thinking the exact type of implicitly racist assumptions that exist in America.

In Us, the Wilsons have just defeated their doppelgängers and are driving across the country in an ambulance, seeking help and refuge. Everything appears to be okay, but one final twist is dropped. Seconds before rolling the credits, Peele reveals that the Adelaide we’ve been rooting for and cheering for did something much worse than any of the tethered people we had just spent the past 2 hours antagonizing. She was the originally tethered Adelaide, who actually replaced the above-world Adelaide when they met in the house of mirrors as children. From this, we’re forced to reflect on whether or not we still like this character. It’s difficult to explain why, but it turns out that we still do. In bringing this thoughtful experiment to light, Peele demonstrates that by prioritizing the inconsequential things in life and forgetting about our privilege, we’ve become complicit in the exact political failings that we ridicule. Astonishing.

That’s all I’ve got. Get Out and Us are both films that I adore dearly. Their messages are strong and their structures are unbreakable, and I think comparing them in those terms rather than quality is definitely a more constructive discussion to have. Whatever film Jordan Peele makes next, I will be beyond excited to see it.

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