Article Thumbnail

‘Us,’ ‘Psycho,’ and the Challenges of the Explain-It-All Ending

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Jordan Peele horror movie

(Warning: We’re going to be talking about the ending of “Us.” If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, please don’t read this. Maybe try this article about Ireland Simpsons Fans instead.)

For most of Us, the unsettling new thriller from Jordan Peele, we’re left unsure exactly what’s going on. We know that a group of demented murderers are chasing after our main characters, the Wilson family — and that they look just the Wilsons. And we eventually learn that the Wilsons aren’t alone in their misery: All over the country — maybe even the planet? — people’s dark doppelgängers are hunting them down. But why this is happening is left a teasing mystery.

In general, I really like movies such as Us that throw a doozy of a premise at us and then resist the urge to explain everything. Instead of answering questions, they let us sit with them, filling in the blanks ourselves. There’s something awfully appealing about this technique: The viewer gets to feel more like a participant, actively engaging in the story while decoding its themes and deeper meanings. Rather than spelling things out, the filmmakers trust our intelligence to do some detective work ourselves.

So, what did I think the presence of “the Tethered” meant? I had a few theories. Maybe they were symbols of the underprivileged, the homeless, the marginalized. Maybe they were the ugly part of ourselves that we try to deny but keeps popping up regardless. (Psychologists talk a lot about our shadow selves.) And maybe, just maybe, these monsters were simply inexplicable — like so many unspeakable, unknowable terrors in the world, they were just out there waiting to strike at any moment, without warning, and without any real purpose.

All of those notions danced around in my head while I was trapped in the grip of Peele’s superb horror film, adding to the overall suspense. But eventually, the Oscar-winning writer-director revealed what was actually going on. And he did it in the form of a long explanation from Red (Lupita Nyong’o), the leader of the Tethered family, to Adelaide Wilson (also Nyong’o), who has followed her down to her underground lair.

And here’s what we learn. (Seriously: This. Is. A. Spoiler.) The Tethered were part of a government cloning experiment that was scrapped. (The main problem: Scientists couldn’t figure out how to replicate the human soul, which left the clones devoid of personality, unless you count “murdering” as a personality.) Presumably egged on by the “real” Adelaide (who was kidnapped as a girl by the “real” Red, who then took her place in the outside world), the Tethered have mounted an attack on their doppelgängers in order to have a better life and claim Earth for themselves. (And because of the “real” Adelaide’s memory of Hands Across America, the tethered begin forming hands across the landscape.)

Us is hardly the first film to do what I call the Explain-It-All Ending, which essentially is a big monologue that connects all the narrative dots. There’s a real art form to pulling off this kind of finale, which can be different than your typical M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist ending, where our perception of what’s going on gets shifted. No, the Explain-It-All Ending is very specific because it involves a character justifying or explaining something in a way that’s meant to be definitive for the other characters and the audience: Here’s what happened, and here’s why this happened.

The Explain-It-All movies I’m including in this tiny little niche, interestingly enough, are almost all horror films: Shutter Island, Unbreakable, and the granddaddy of them all, Psycho. I have no doubt that there are other movies with this kind of ending, but let’s just focus on these three for the purposes of this discussion. I’d like to talk about this device and why I like it so much — and also why, even though I don’t think it totally lands in Us, I may eventually come around and think it’s brilliant, too.

In those earlier movies, different figures of authority do the explaining. In Shutter Island, psychologist Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) tells Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Teddy that he’s not really a U.S. Marshall — he’s actually a patient at the insane asylum who Cawley and the staff are trying to help by conducting an elaborate role-playing game where he thinks he’s a lawman. In Unbreakable, the diabolical Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Bruce Willis’ superhero David that he was behind the train crash because he’s been searching for an arch-nemesis who’s indestructible. And in Psycho, a psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) explains why seemingly mild-mannered Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) became a killer.

Even if you’ve seen Psycho, take a few minutes right now to revisit that scene:

Psycho has the quintessential Explain-It-All Ending — which is another way of saying it’s an ending that a lot of people hate. Ever since Alfred Hitchcock’s exquisite horror film came out in 1960, audiences have debated if this explanation scene is amazing or terrible — and even Hitchcock himself was unsure about it. According to the documentary The Making of Psycho, Hitch wasn’t convinced that any explanation was necessary for Bates’ behavior, but screenwriter Joseph Stefano says that he insisted the director include the scene:

The psychiatrist’s speech at the end was something that Hitch had some qualms about. He was afraid the audience wouldn’t be interested. He called it a ‘hat grabber.’ I said, ‘I don’t think anybody’s gonna grab their hats and leave the theater, after what we have just told them. We’ve just said this boy has been pretending he’s his own mother, and we need a really good scientific explanation.’

It wasn’t difficult to write because I knew most of this stuff. I was in Freudian analysis at the time and simply drew on the things that I was experiencing in my own life, and then put them in the mouth of a psychiatrist.

What has often annoyed critics of that scene is that it feels less imaginative than the rest of Psycho, which is vividly shot and filled with tension. By comparison, the doctor’s speech is filmed in the most banal way imaginable — it feels like it was tacked on after production and hastily assembled, tossed off. As for the explanation itself, well, it’s delivered in a completely dry, expositional, almost obligatory style. The speech is so thoroughly unconvincing and unsatisfying — it’s a total letdown.

Of course, all of that was the point. Psycho’s ending scene is feeble because it’s meant to show how feeble rational, scientific explanations are in the face of such pure evil. Sure, Bates probably was driven to kill because of his mother, but that can hardly encapsulate or unlock the depth of this monster’s depravity. As scholar David Humbert writes in Violence in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock: A Study in Mimesis:

In Hitchcock’s films, the relation of psychoanalysis to their patients is akin to the relation between the police and their criminal antagonists: one of persistent misunderstanding. Indeed, Hitchcock’s films often portray both police and psychiatrists, practitioners of the professions devoted to the prevention of crime and the therapeutic cure of mental instability, as woefully inadequate and limited in their effect.

In that way, Psycho’s explanation isn’t an explanation at all — it offers theories but no real insight. And that’s why it’s so chilling to end on Bates’ eerily smiling face. No medical diagnosis can entirely elucidate that.

I didn’t realize all of this the first time I saw Psycho, though. It took me a while to realize how brilliant its fake-out was. (And some people still don’t: This week at The Ringer, editor-in-chief Sean Fennessey lamented the movie’s “dumb, oversimplified ending.”) This is the trick of the Explain-It-All Ending: We’re waylaid by it at a crucial moment in the film, and then we’re left reeling as we stagger from the theater, trying to figure out what it all meant.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that I felt underwhelmed by Us’ finale. I had all these ideas about what I thought was going on in Peele’s film, and then he just … told me what the deal was. That can be a letdown, denying the infinite possibilities of your own imagination and reducing everything to “Nope, they’re just vengeful clones.”

But as with Psycho, I’d point to Shutter Island and Unbreakable as movies that grew in my estimation over time, in part because of their Explain-It-All endings.

With Shutter Island, the reveal of Teddy’s true nature was, upon the film’s release, judged to be a cheap Shyamalan-esque twist. But subsequent viewings proved that the “twist” wasn’t really that vital to the film, which is really a story of a deluded man who briefly realizes how tragic his life is — only to flee back into his psychosis permanently because he cannot bear that tragedy. The explanation is less a reveal than one last attempt to save Teddy from madness — it’s heartbreaking.

And Glass’ speech in Unbreakable is somewhat similar. Sure, it’s a pretty far-fetched explanation, but it’s also a gut-punch to David, who over the course of the film has come to accept his destiny — only to learn that it came about because of a tragedy orchestrated by this deranged man. That revelation clouds later viewings of Unbreakable: It’s an origin story for a superhero who doesn’t know the villainy that brought it into being.

Reading Us reviews, I’ve noticed that several critics have mentioned that the film might have great rewatch appeal — an indication that, days after seeing the movie, we’re all still wrestling with the implications of its ending. I’m a bit underwhelmed at the moment, but I have a sneaking suspicion I may like Us a lot more in a few years. These films’ endings explain a lot, but it can take a while to fully understand them.

Here are three other takeaways from Us.

#1. Twitter has come up with some good ‘Us’ #OnePerfectShot memes.

For people who don’t follow Film Twitter — you know, people with sane, happy lives — you may be unfamiliar with One Perfect Shot, which celebrates the most beautiful images in movies.

I’ve written about the site before, but I didn’t mention a funny offshoot of it, which involves people on Twitter parodying the #OnePerfectShot template, except they do a play on a movie’s title with a different film or image.

For instance…

Not surprisingly, Us has inspired several of these parodies, referencing other TV shows and movies that feature doppelgangers. Here are a couple favorites:

But the best may be this homage to a classic Seinfeld episode:

Well done, Mack Williams. Well done.

#2. The “Hands Across America” song is truly terrible.

Since I was a kid in the 1980s, I’m very familiar with benefit songs. They’re very much a product of that era: tunes written specifically to raise money for worthy causes. The most famous examples are “We Are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” but they weren’t the only ones. Thanks to Us, I was reminded of another song. A very bad song.

Over at Vulture, Jason Bailey has a history of Hands Across America, a well-meaning attempt in 1986 to combat poverty, hunger and homelessness. The visual element was the symbolic action of Americans holding hands from coast to coast in order to show unity, and a song was commissioned for the event. Us references Hands Across America, but Peele doesn’t mention the song, which I had completely forgotten about. Egads, here it is:

While I’m heartened to know that Crockett and Tubbs are concerned about poverty, “Hands Across America” is far inferior to the other benefit songs of the time. In fact, there’s only one that’s worse. I’m speaking, of course, of “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well.”

Always remember: If you want to book Sting, he’s a lot more available on Saturdays than Thursdays or Fridays.

#3. Here’s a quick recap of all the “next Hitchcocks.”

You can tell that you’re a successful up-and-coming filmmaker when you’re called the “next” somebody. Some directors are pegged as the “next Spielberg” or the “next Kubrick.” In 2000, Esquire asked film critics to write essays on who they thought the “next Scorsese” would be. (The magazine also asked the man himself to weigh in. Scorsese’s pick? Wes Anderson.) It’s an honor, of sorts, to be christened the “next” somebody. But it’s also a bit limiting: You’re no longer the first you — you’re just the best version of a revered old/dead filmmaker you can’t possibly hope of surpassing.

With the glowing reviews for Us, Jordan Peele has gotten a few “next Spielberg” accolades, but another filmmaker comes up more often — and even his producer has made the comparison. Back in 2017, Jason Blum, who oversaw Get Out and Ussaid, “I often think ‘What would Hitchcock make if he was alive today?’ One of those things would be Get Out.” Lots of sites now commonly refer to Peele as “this generation’s Hitchcock” or “the next Hitchcock” — not without some pushback from fans, who don’t want Peele’s originality reduced to such a shorthand.

Of course, Peele isn’t the first “next Hitchcock.” When the so-called Master of Suspense died in 1980 at the age of 80, the hunt soon began among entertainment journalists to find a new Hitchcock to crown. A few months after Hitch’s passing, Rolling Stone ran a profile of director Brian De Palma (riding high from Carrie and Dressed to Kill) that was entitled “Brian De Palma: The New Hitchcock or Just Another Rip-Off?” In the piece, De Palma waved off the comparison: “My style is very different from Hitchcock’s. I am dealing in surrealistic, erotic imagery. Hitchcock never got into that too much.” Eventually, though, De Palma owned up to how much of an influence Hitchcock was on his coldblooded films: In 2016, he talked about his early attempts at making films in college, saying, “I decided I wanted to start learning how to tell stories with pictures. So, of course, Hitchcock is the great master of that, and I saw a lot of his movies and began to use some of his story ideas and techniques in order to learn how to do that.”

Then there’s M. Night Shyamalan, who had to endure Hitchcock comparisons for another reason. Like Hitch, he does cameos in his own movies, albeit with far more lines than the Psycho director ever allowed himself in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearances.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Shyamalan objected in 2006 when Talk of the Nation’s Neal Conan asked him about those “Hitchcockian cameos.” “Well, actually, that’s kind of the perception what you just said,” Shyamalan replied, “and it’s not actually the reality. … The whole cameo thing, like you just said, is the only thing that we have as a kind of — what’s the word — clothes that have been worn before. And so the assumption is, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re doing, you’re doing the Hitchcock thing.’ But that’s not what I’m doing.”

Now comes Peele, and it’s funny that he, too, has mixed feeling about this “next Hitchcock” business. A couple weeks ago, he was asked about those comparisons. “He’s kind of a creep,” Peele said, albeit somewhat jokingly, but perhaps referring to Hitchcock’s reputation as a troubled individual who was accused by star Tippi Hedren of sexual abuse. “Of course, on the artistic level, I love being compared to the man who brought me Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, Vertigo. He’s the greatest.”

Thankfully, creepiness isn’t something the two filmmakers have in common. But that’s not stopping Peele from doing a few Hitchcockian cameos in his movies. Kind of.