Jordan Peele’s, directorial debut, ‘Get Out’, garnered Oscar nominations and critical acclaim alike after its release in 2017. Just one month after, Trump was inaugurated. The accidental-but-perfect timing of this meant that he found his socially-conscious horror caught in the middle of a political event. Simultaneously, this catapulted ‘Get Out’ into something of a cultural phenomenon.
Writer/director, Peele, returns with comedy-horror, ‘Us’. The film opens to Reaganite America. Santa Cruz beach boardwalk. 1986. Where young Adelaide (Madison Curry), separates from her parents and enters the fun house of mirrors, warping gothic convention. Fresh with wide-eyed horror, she is unable to process what she is witnessing in front of her. Herself. However, something is off. Asymmetrical, even. Unbeknownst to her, she has fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole. Here begins Adelaide’s journey, where she is literally beckoned by the lacklustre enthusiasm of the attraction’s fairground lights to ‘Find Yourself‘. The opening credits match cuts to the eye of a white rabbit, zooming outwards to a wall stacked floor to ceiling with caged white rabbits. Drawing parallels to the spiritual awakening of Alice, searching for the white rabbit throughout Wonderland, Peele’s symbolism for Adelaide’s quest for knowledge and truth behind this traumatic event and her own identity spans decades into a post-truth America. But make no mistake, this is no Wonderland.
Anyone acquainted with the trailer will be familiar with the film’s synopsis. Adelaide Wilson finds herself back in Santa Cruz, on holiday with her own family. But not just anywhere in Santa Cruz, she returns to the same beach where she came face-to-face with herself, thirty years prior. Perfect symmetry is drawn to Adelaide’s traumatic childhood as Adelaide’s son, Jason (Evan Alex), soon wanders off, finding a doppelgänger with crimson blood dripping from its finger. The as yet un-introduced ‘Tethered’ (the name the doppelgänger’s give themselves), personifies the transmission of intergenerational trauma. Adelaide passing onto Jason, the unsettling anxiety that a dark cloud is following her, which she has been left haunted by. Jason can’t shake an unexplained feeling why he feels like a ‘freak’ that never truly fitted in (the film’s closing moments offers a divisive explanation to this). This is additionally compounded when Peele decidedly opens ‘Us’ with a television set playing promotional footage for ‘Hands Across America’. An empty Reaganite gesture of charity to end homelessness by the simple act of holding hands. Peele infers that not only is the cause of this trauma personal, it is also more widely, interconnected with the political. Adelaide’s scars unavoidably ripple across generations but also equally echo across administrations. Stylistically, this is supported by the first act being spent interlacing flashbacks from 1986 and the present. It is hard not to feel that Peele questions free-will and the extent to which political history repeats itself.
Whilst Peele’s 2017 predecessor, ‘Get Out’ set out to explicitly explore White America’s beliefs of ‘the other’ with a determined allegory of race. The allegory in ‘Us’ is more oblique. This time around, ‘Us’ does not offer an outright critique on race but cryptically on wealth inequity, poverty, class and privilege. Here, Peele offers a nuanced, blurred dichotomy between the under- and over- classes. Both, humanity and the bestial tethered together in a more inexplicable manner than the drastic disassociation between ‘us’ and ‘the other’ in real life, as you would be led to believe by the divisiveness of current global politics. This could be a carefully considered choice on Peele’s part, having an indirect allegory which starkly contrasts with the victim-villain dichotomy of the Wilson’s and ‘The Tethered’. However, this is only speculation. Perhaps, this is the charm of ‘Us’. It leaves the individual responsible for making sense of the horror unfolding. Long after the credits have finished rolling, through the lens of a kaleidoscope, you will be amalgamating and making sense of the multi-faceted layers of subtext, metaphor, imagery and symbolism. The more the mind twists and turns, the more the vivid colours of Peele’s ideas evolve. With a third act twist which audiences might roll their eyes at, a second watch is necessary. If only to be rewarded by your prior interpretation being validated and then challenged once more.
With an oblique allegory, how this dichotomy is explored is of more interest than the “why” and “hows’ of ‘The Tethered’s” existence. Us, at its heart, is a film of symmetry with the doppelgänger trope interwoven into the fabric of the film through symbolism and imagery. Returning home after a day at the beach, the Wilson’s find their ‘Tethered’ counterparts standing on their driveway. It’s as if imagery straight from the ‘Hands Across America’ campaign was strewn across the foreground. The back-lit light flooding the driveway, leaving a four-person-hand-in-hand shadow behind whilst also mirrored on the driveway beneath them, the imagery of duality. Conventions of the home invasion sub-genre are consequently followed throughout the rest of the film, echoing ‘The Strangers’. The unquantified threat of ‘The Tethered’ is allowed to be let loose to fester and run rampant, not just on screen in the Wilson’s holiday home community, but also in the audience’s mind. This potent uncertainty of who ‘The Tethered’ are feeds into both the Wilson’s and audience’s own anxiety and consequent othering. On a second-watch, these viscerally violent and thematically provocative scenes ask: who should we really fear? Them? Or Us? Audiences ascribe their own meaning based on their own moral currency. Faced with the same dilemma (it’s us or them), the Wilson’s cut through ‘The Tethered’ with golf clubs, coal-pokers and ornaments with bestial-ease. ‘The Tethered’, despite being portrayed as the villains by the victim’s, bring an element of humanity with them, and consequently a devastating sense of pathos to the scenes, in retrospect. The answer to Us or Them may not be as clear cut as you might suspect.
Whilst ‘Us’ is a more straight-forward horror than ‘Get Out’, Peele avoids a sophomore slump by again successfully melding the conventions of horror with the socially-conscious psychological. ‘The Tethered”, are a shadow of their human-counterparts, with little variation beyond their red coverall-exterior, willing bloodshed on their betters. ‘The Tethered’s’ uniformity is a powerful and purposeful choice on Peele’s part. On a metaphorical level, the uniformity represents Jungian theory of the shadow-self, or the dark side to a person. The earlier imagery of the Wilsons’ counterparts standing on the driveway, brings a new meaning to the Jungian shadow strewn across the driveway. The shadow almost levitates out of the ‘Tethered’s’ body fighting the urge to break free and wreck havoc across the neighbourhood. Simpler yet, uniformity suggests that these darker fractured fragments, non-discriminately, exists within each of us. After all, we’re all the same broken parts.
However, on a more literal level, ‘The Tethered’ could serve as an extended Freudian-esque metaphor to represent their respective counterparts’, collective psychological id whilst also doubling as a metaphor for the risen proletariat/underclass. Thanks to Lupita Nyogng’o’s stellar performance, the repressed pain, anguish and resentment of the underclass is expressed. Here, her expression is guttural and primal and if this was awards season, this would be the talk of Hollywood.
Or, alternatively, does this sickly-twisted mirror image act as a double-barrel metaphor for the internet age? Where, it is hard to discern our own personality amongst our narcissistic and shallow social media existence? And it can be a bestial-breeding ground for anonymous hate and bigotry. ‘Us’ is underpinned by a strong anti-consumerist message. It is surely no coincidence that earlier in the first act, Adelaide’s friend Kitty (Elizabeth Moss) boasts of the work she has had done on her face and the Wilson’s look lovingly at their newest material good, their boat. Supported by the Jerimiah 11:11 Easter egg littered throughout, this is idle worship and the uniformity of ‘The Tethered’ isn’t having any of it.
Peele’s symmetry and juxtaposition, expertly compliments his masterful subversion of patriarchial and racial stereotypes. Peele’s macho imagery during the first and second act of the film is a testament to this. During the prologue, Adelaide’s Father exhibits macho-power in a game of Whac-A-Mole on the boardwalk fair. Later, Gabe (Winston Duke), Adelaide’s Husband, armed with his masculine-driven, bat-wielding performance underpinned by empty threats fails to fend off their ‘Tethered’ counterparts on their driveway. It is at this point that as Gabe’s alpha-male persona recedes following being attacked by Abraham (his counterpart) leaving him hobbling that Adelaide flourishes. Going from strength to strength for the remainder of the film, exploding with visceral energy during the third act show down. A coal porker in a handcuffed grasp replaces Gabe’s bat and the power of her maternal instinct to protect her family, more fervently, provides perfect juxtaposition against Gabe’s macho-bullshit performance.
Punctuated by Peele’s signature-style perfectly ill-timed, irreverent humour, it would not be controversial to consider that Peele might just be tethered to Gabe who is a vessel for the films comedy for much of the running time. A multitude of times, Gabe lulls the crowd into a false sense of security with his affable, dad-jokes, only for the tension to build into a crescendo, quite literally, supplied by Micheal Abels’ operatic choral arrangements.
Peele has been outspoken about colourism in Hollywood, fervently nurturing black talent, and in doing so, changing the tides in Hollywood. Again, Peele subverts what is expected of race in horror films. The horror stereotype of the singular black character being the first killed is no more, as the Wilson’s are the last ones standing against their White family friends (which provides wonderful juxtaposition) and one that we don’t see enough in horror films. Peele also subverts the portrayal of class. The Wilson’s are an affluent middle-class African American family who live in comparative luxury. They only need to worry about their holiday home, how many people can fit on their boat purchased especially for their holiday and Jason being able to come up with tricks. However, much like the theme of duality running throughout ‘Us’, this privilege blinds them to the plight of the less fortunate who are, quite literally, out of sight and out of mind. Only when the Wilson’s are face-to-face with their bestial-selves during the second act does their ignorance begin to unravel and this juxtaposition is both stark and heartbreaking.
By the time the third act showdown between Lupita Nyong’o‘s, Adelaide Wilson and ‘Red’ (her tethered other half) rolls round, the weight of ‘The Tethered’s’ revelation of their true intent is an act too late and too basic to feel impressive or weighty. Peele, at times, can also be heavy-handed throughout when paying homage to films that inspired ‘Us’. From the anxiety-inducing, vacation dreamland of the first act inspired by Spielberg’s Jaws, drawing comparisons to the danger from below metaphor (Jason dons a Jaws T-shirt to labour the point). To the third act show down where the beige-stained underground-interior could easily be mistaken from Kubrick’s lonely hotel in ‘The Shining’. Simultaneously, this is interlaced with jaw-dropping ballet segments which could easily have been lifted from ‘Black Swan’s’ choreography. However, this does not lessen the power of the showdown when it comes to a head.
Seeded throughout, the audience is warned of disused tunnels deep under the city, prophetic scripture from Jeremiah 11:11 and white rabbits. Individual’s familiar with ‘Get Out’, will know that these moments are never inane. Like Adelaide navigating through the house of mirrors, audiences will follow these breadcrumbs through the two-hour-running-time-maze and wait for the pay off. However, unlike ‘Get Out’, there are some lose ends which are never explained. These tidbits often feel like tasty appetisers with the backstory cut from the theatrical release only to be later explained in an extended directors cut. Peele has returned more ambitious as ever. He attempts to world-build an entire mythology within the two hour run time alongside showing not telling the political statement he is trying to make. However, Peele does stumble on his way to achieving this, leaving the film feeling over-bloated and watered down with a mixed bag of metaphors and symbolism. Consequently, his natural talent for water-tight, cohesive storytelling has taken a back seat to his directorial ability. It can leave audience’s admiring the impressive volume of ambitious concepts at play rather than how these are executed.
Whilst it feels unfair to review the film after one viewing, given the third act twist which changes how the rest of the film is perceived. One thing remains crystal clear: “maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us” which Peele summed up during the SXSW post-screening Q&A. Peele implores the audiences to suspend finger-pointing and self-examine our bestial side, compassionately postulating that sometimes, the ‘them’ is ‘us’ and the ‘us’ is ‘them’. Through ‘Us’, he has purposely crafted a cinematic experience that is uniquely personal for each individual, the world over. There is a need to examine how we hold ourselves down and our own capacity to cause harm, intended or otherwise. Are our hands tethered together with any ounce of apathy, ignorance or bigotry? Or, are our hands tethered together in solidarity, compassion and understanding?
It will have you looking in the mirror long after returning home from the cinema. If you stare for long enough, you’ll see your true self. The question is: Will you like what you’ll find?
Come face-to-face with yourself. Watch ‘Us’ currently playing in cinemas now.
Director: Jordan Peele. Starring: Lupita Nyong’o; Winston Duke’ Elizabeth Moss; Tim Heidecker. Release Date: 22/03/2019. Rated 15.