Barring the total collapse of American democracy, on January 20th, 2021 Donald Trump will stop being President of the United States. With his departure from the White House — voluntary or otherwise — will end the Trump Era, a stretch of four years on the calendar but also a cultural moment with distinct attitudes and signposts that will only become more recognizable over time. Presidencies have a way of coloring pop culture, sometimes in ways apparent at the time, sometimes in ways that don’t become obvious until later. Occasionally it’s a matter of coincidence. Francis Ford Coppola conceived and largely completed The Conversation before the Watergate scandal broke. But the sense of paranoia captured by it and contemporary films from Klute to The Parallax View convey a sense of the times in ways as meaningful as newspaper headlines.
The Trump era will inevitably have its equivalent to those films, movies that double as time machines to what it felt like to live during this moment in history whether they explicitly talk about Trump or not. Which films will serve that purpose might take a while to emerge, but the past few years have presented some strong contenders.
Some of the strongest appeared just this year. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm arrived almost by surprise in late October, days before the 2020 presidential election and less than a month after Amazon Studios’ acquisition confirmed its existence. That couldn’t have been too long after the film’s completion. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s second half doubles as a snapshot of the Covid-19 pandemic in its early days, when the disease spread as right-wing politicians and conspiracy theories helped politicize what should have been a public safety issue. However accidentally, it offers a ground-level view of a country simultaneously descending into illness and madness, even apart from its instantly infamous Rudy Giuliani appearance.
Unsurprisingly, Spike Lee has been responsible for some of the most striking depictions of our current moment. 2020 alone saw the release of both Da 5 Bloods, in which Delroy Lindo plays a character whose MAGA hat and Trump enthusiasm serves of as an extension of the bitterness and self-loathing he’s lived with since serving in Vietnam, and David Byrne’s American Utopia, in which Byrne uses elaborate choreography and songs both recent and classic to create sometimes curious, sometimes furious, ultimately hopeful X-ray of American life taken in the midst of a difficult decade. Neither, however, is quite as disarming as the coda of 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, which interrupts a happy ending to draw a direct line from the film’s momentary victory against the white supremacy in the ’70s to images of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. As in Da 5 Bloods, the past refuses to remain in the past. The long arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it often threatens to bend back.
Sometimes indirect references resonate just as strongly. One of the movies most evocative of the current moment takes place sometime ago and far from America. Terrence Malick's best film since Tree of Life, A Hidden Life recounts the true story Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a German conscientious objector whose refusal to fight in World War II and swear allegiance to Hitler led to his execution in 1943. A Hidden Life demands patience, but its slowness becomes part of the point as, by degrees, Germany transforms before Jägerstätter’s eyes, the intolerance and anger of its strongman leader and the twisted values of the Nazi party seeping into the cultural groundwater and poisoning the character of the country he thought he knew.
Tackling a subject head-on can backfire. Directed by Craig Zobel (Compliance) from a script by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, The Hunt pits liberal elites against conservative “deplorables.” Maybe the unluckiest movie of the past few years, it opened just as the pandemic shut down theaters after being pushed from its fall 2019 release date when online conservatives raised a stink about its premise (never mind that it frequently casts liberals in a much harsher light than their opponents). It’s hard to feel too bad about its fate, however. Its unsubtle satirical vision of America ultimately has little to say about the deepening divide between haves and have-nots. By contrast, the Korea of Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite offered a sharper depiction of the deepening chasm between haves and have-nots. (Lindelof and Cuse made no end of sharp points in HBO’s Watchmen, however, even though it unfolded in an alternate-universe United States.)
To my eyes, however, nothing quite captures the feeling of living in the Trump era quite as well Us, Jordan Peele’s second film as writer/director, a work of free-floating dread in which everyday life becomes fraught with peril and America starts to reinvent itself as a horrific mirror image of what it once was.
Few artists have transitioned from one job to another quite as well, or quickly, as Peele, who made his debut as a horror director less than a year after the premiere Keanu, the feature film extension of his longtime comedy partnership with Kegan-Michael Key. Released in 2017, Get Out emerged as an instant classic, mixing sustained creepiness, dark comedy, and thorny commentary to create a potent film about the persistence of racism in 21st century America, even among those who present themselves as too enlightened to practice it.
Get Out works a clean, memorable metaphor whose implications grow more horrific as the narrative progresses. It’s a complex film in many respects but an easy one to grasp. Us is different. Any attempt to tie it to a single reading proves futile but its vagueness helps give it power.
A quick refresher: Us stars Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, a woman still traumatized by a childhood incident in which she wandered into a funhouse off the Santa Cruz boardwalk and encountered her doppelgänger in a hall of mirrors. Winston Duke co-stars as her husband Gabe alongside Shahadi Wright Joseph as their teenaged daughter Zora and Evan Alex as their younger son Jason. Returning to Santa Cruz for a vacation as an adult, Adelaide has to overcome her aversion to the beach, where the family spends time with Gabe’s obnoxious co-worker Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Josh’s wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), who attempts to draw Adelaide into conversation with talk of plastic surgery and speculation about roads not taken in spite of Adelaide’s obvious discomfort. Adelaide’s unnerved by the outing, but even more unnerved when a quartet of jumpsuit-clad doppelgängers arrive at their doorstep and attempt to invade their home.
Through it all, Peele creates an atmosphere in which even the most pleasant locations take on air of danger. At the beach, the gulls gather a little too thickly and squawk a little too loudly. The beach house reveals itself as a place of dark corners, closets that can’t be opened from the inside, and unpleasant memories. It’s an unwelcoming home, but one they find themselves forced to defend against doubles with whom they’re unknowingly linked, beings whose personalities resemble violent caricatures of their own.
The film begins with a promo for the 1986 charity event Hands Across America, a benefit for the homeless in which volunteers formed a human chain that (mostly) stretched from one coast to the other. It ends with a chilling reference to the same. The doppelgängers, or “Tethered,” can be read as a stand-in for all those forgotten by those, like Adelaide, who’ve achieved a level of wealth and privilege that allows them to live apart from the less fortunate. “We’re Americans,” Adelaide’s double, a terrifying woman named “Red” by the credits, tells her. After emerging from a subterranean lair and taking over Santa Cruz, the Tethered seem determined to stay underground no more and take what they believe to be theirs, by force if necessary.
Us’s action, like most of the events of the real-world events of the last few years, is driven by an artifact of the ’80s that’s returned in a twisted, malignant form. But the film's a little too slippery to be just about that, and in interviews Peele has been reluctant to tie it down to a single meaning. “I think a lot of people are catching onto the fact that there's a lot of United States/American imagery in this. And the duality of this country and our beliefs and our demons, I think, is on display,” Peele told NPR at the time of the film’s release. “But I think Us is bigger than that. And I think one of the reasons this movie has an expansiveness is because ‘us’ is subjective. Everybody thinks of the term ‘us’ in different ways — it can be ‘us’ the family, ‘us’ the town, ‘us’ the country, ‘us’ humanity. I think in the simplest form, the very nature of ‘us’ means there is a ‘them,’ right? So that is what this movie is about to me, is that: Whatever your ‘us’ is, we turn ‘them’ into the enemy, and maybe ‘we’ are our own worst enemy.”
That kind of vagueness makes Us’s depiction of an America turned upside down all the more unsettling. The Tethered are both terrifying and pitiable. The products of a scientific experiment whose mechanics make little sense outside the logic of dreams, they’ve had their humanity subjugated to their above-ground lookalikes since birth (well, “birth”). They work as stand-ins for the oppressed, but also as bloodthirsty mirror images of the world we know, and a society that’s more fragile and subject to be taken over by barbaric forces than we’d ever feared possible.
Peele has been generous in citing the film’s influences, from Halloween to The Birds to The Shining (he even dressed like Jack Torrance for interviews and waited for others to notice) to George Romero’s zombie films. The lattermost seems particularly relevant. Romero used the undead as unstable metaphors and let his films double as social commentary even when he didn’t put too fine a point on it. “That movie was about race even though they don’t talk about race in the film,” Peele says of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in a feature included on its DVD and Blu-ray editions. So, in many ways, is Us. As both child and adult, Adelaide and her family are often the only Black family in a world of white faces. The arrival of the Tethered doesn’t introduce the threat that her family’s property and safety might be taken away from them by violence and hatred so much as intensify it. The escalation of racist violence and highly publicized incidents of Black people dying at the hands of police over the past few years have little to quell such fears.
Us is ultimately a difficult film to sort out, maybe by design, one that carefully creates a vision of the United States in which nothing quite seems right then allows that not-right feeling erupt into a beachside apocalypse. As in Get Out, Peele employs humor, but the comedy always threatens to tip over into terror and violence. The film’s America is perpetually moments away from becoming a perversion of what it used to be, one overrun by violent hordes. They echo Romero’s zombies and anticipate the angry mobs of shutdown protestors, who’ve swarmed state capitals in the name of “liberty.” Us also hinges on a late-film twist that blurs the line between heroes and villains suggesting that any confusion about who to root for is baked into its design. Are the Tethered stand-ins for the righteously angry or the worst of us, monsters here to tear it all down after years of suppression? The film isn’t saying. It’s a work born of a confusing moment, one in which we’ve watched the country threaten to fall apart under the command of those determined to move it backwards. Years from now, Peele’s film will look like a document of how we lived during the Trump years, how each moment felt freighted with anxiety about what will come next and whether or not we’ll survive it. It’s a film about now, and about us.
Originally Appeared on GQ