Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
Two year ago I found myself in the rather unenviable position of being one of the few people in the world who didn’t much care for Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning horror film Get Out. At the time the one and only negative review of that movie on Rotten Tomatoes was written by noted provocateur Armond White and to my general bafflement the movie became a giant box office success despite its rather unconventional appeal. Still, I’m rather proud of that review. I finally had a fairly original take on a movie and I think I expressed it pretty effectively and I haven’t really waivered at all in my take on the movie. That said, with me going against the grain of popular opinion like that I feel like I spent a lot of time focusing on the negatives of the film when there were in fact certainly aspects to it that I found impressive. It was certainly a different approach to the genre and Jordan Peele was certainly a voice I wanted to hear more from, so despite my issues with that debut I was looking forward to his follow-up film, the interestingly titled Us.
Us focuses on the Wilson family, which consists of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), their daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex). As the story begins the family is headed to Santa Cruz, where they have a vacation home, but Adelaide has come to sort of dread this trip because of a traumatic experience she had as a young child in that area where she wandered off into a house of mirrors and encountered something that scared her to the point that it took her years to recover. She does not, however, have the easiest time explaining this to her husband, who is looking forward to meeting with his friend Josh (Tim Heidecker) and his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss). Things mostly seem to be going normally for a while until suddenly at night the family notices a group of strange people standing out in their driveway looking rather threatening. Soon they discover that this family is a sort of mirror image of themselves but with different and more violent personalities and ready to menace them over the course of the night.
Unlike Get Out, which was more of a Twilight Zone episode than a true horror film, Us is unquestionably meant to be a full on work of horror. Specifically it’s a home invasion movie, at least in its early stages, which is significant because that is a sub-genre that’s been rather prone to rather loaded political subtext suggesting a sort of invasion of middle America that needs to be fought back, often though gun ownership. Us isn’t specifically meant to be an inversion of that but it is worth noting. The family at the center of the film is African American, and I don’t think this is incidental at all but it is interesting that it’s not something the film’s screenplay seems to draw attention to at all. Had Peele decided to change directions and cast a white family at the film’s center I’m not sure that it would have really had to change any dialogue at all. Instead I think the film very notably draws attention to the fact that this family is distinctly upper middle class. They have a vacation home, the father rather prominently wears a Howard University sweatshirt through much of the film, and there’s an element of “keeping up with the joneses” in how they view their slightly richer friends with an understated but clear degree of jealousy.
This class distinction to me is key to understanding the film. The metaphor at its center seems to be a sort of critique of the way American wealth comes at the expense of others both domestic and abroad. We wear clothing that’s sewn at sweatshops, we communicate on devices that are put together by people known to throw themselves off of buildings, and we eat food picked by horribly mistreated migrants. We do everything in our power to avoid thinking about the people propping up our way of life and engage in bullshit acts of performative charity like Hands Across America in order to tell ourselves we’re on the good side, but ultimately we’re all implicated in a system propped up on the exploitation of others whether we like it or not. And that is where the “tethered” come in. Adelaide’s counterpart rather explicitly lays out that the root of her discontent is that the surface dwellers have been living high on the hog while the people below have been actively miserable. We like to think of these people as being a vague “other” but in reality they’re basically just alternate versions of “us.”
Of course that’s subtext, the really weird thing about Us is that the basic text of the film… kind of doesn’t make sense, or at least the twist doesn’t if you’re looking at it literally. I gather from watching the movie that, prior to Red changing things, these tethers are supposed to be constantly mirroring every last movement of their counterparts above. Which is something that would seem to result in a whole lot of walking into walls. Think about it for just a couple minutes and you come up with questions like “What happens if you fly to the opposite coast? Do the tethers follow? Do immigrants have tethers? How do the tethers end up with the exact same mates as their counterparts above and pass along exactly the right genes to produce children identical to their clones on the surface?” Beyond that there are other questions, like where they get their jumpsuits or why they think they’ll be able to take over a country with 1.2 guns per person using only scissors. At a certain point you kind of need to invoke Argento style “nightmare logic” to excuse this stuff, and how willing you are to do that will probably determine how much you’re going to like the movie.
I’m normally pretty quick to have my attention derailed by plot holes and logical inconsistencies like that but I must say I found myself oddly willing to go along with Us. I think that’s partly because it seems to be deliberately existing in a sort of symbolic place in a way that mainstream horror movies generally don’t. That is the main thing that differentiates it from Get Out, which was also essentially an allegory, but a very clear allegory when that allegory started to stopped lining up as much as it thought it did in the second half it sort of lost me. This one is more open for interpretation and that gives it a certain leeway that I wasn’t inclined to give Get Out. It also frankly just works a lot better as a visceral thriller rife with intense pacing and visceral horror imagery and that alone puts it over Get Out even if I didn’t have other issues with that movie.
**** out of Five