SPOILER WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR UNIVERSAL PICTURES’ NEW FILM US
This is much later than I like to post written movie reviews. My original intent was to record a conversation with our friend Chad J. Shonk because this movie deserves not only a deep conversation but the insight of a professional. It made me think and feel a lot of things and I knew Chad would be the perfect guy to hash it out with.
Unfortunately I just found out that I have to work on the day that I had scheduled to talk to Chad. So now I’m writing my thoughts and hoping to record at a later date. Unfortunately the further I get from the movie, the less clarity I’ll have regarding it and the more other things will crowd in to take my attention, so that conversation may never happen.
Thanks, day job. You ruin my dreams but pay for my Ser Davos costume.
Jordan Peele is a badass. He’s brilliant, he’s funny, he’s a pop culture/genre sponge; but most importantly, he can focus those qualities into creating things that are unique, yet wear their influences proudly on their sleeves. His sleeves. Whatever.
I’m a huge fan of Key & Peele, less so a fan of Get Out. I thought the movie was extremely well done and had a fantastic cast, but had some story and pacing issues that kept me from becoming as engaged as I wanted. Jordan Peele’s work still impressed and excited me, though, and I couldn’t wait to see what he would do next. All signs seemed to be pointing to the fact that he was becoming a powerful force in Hollywood and one of the few that might have the potential to enact sweeping changes in not only the processes but the entire mentality of the movie industry.
Does Us continue Peele’s upward trajectory or does it represent a stalling point in the creator’s career? Read on and find out!
Note: I will do my best to maintain a coherent format, but the thoughts are just spilling out of my head faster than my hands can type.
1 – The Politics – I guess the first thing I want to get out of the way is that I am not an overly political person and while I can certainly perceive messages, I do not typically apply the politics to the film’s merit. Unless they’re distracting or so heavy-handed that they’re taking me out of the experience.
I am well aware that Us is loaded with metaphors and messages, but Jordan Peele is so skilled at weaving these ideas into not just the narrative but the very visuals that he works with that the viewer is left to examine their own perspective on things.
Or not and just enjoy a skillfully executed film.
I’d also like to comment on Jordan Peele’s quote:
“I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes,” he said, nodding over to his moderator pal Roberts. “But I’ve seen that movie.”
THAT IS FINE. I can’t even imagine why anyone would think it’s okay to have an opinion on who Jordan Peele should cast in his movie. I also can’t imagine why you would want Jordan Peele to cast anyone other than who he would want in his movie.
Peele’s casts are a huge part of the art and the statements that he is creating and you’re a big stupid dum-dum and definitely racist if you have a problem with him stating that he wants to cast black people in his films. And no – he is not racist for saying that he probably won’t cast a white lead. If the story he is telling does not have a white lead, why in the world would he cast a white lead?
I simply don’t find that statement controversial. And if you’re the type of extra special dum-dum who would say something like, “Well, a white guy couldn’t say that,” guess what? You’re right.
A white guy couldn’t say that because white dudes are and have been the leads in movies all the time and forever. How do you make the sort of socio-political point that Peele likes to make with a white dude as your lead? And that is part of Peele’s art so the two things are inextricable.
You dumbass racists need to get a handle on context and nuance, though that could be said of any overly vocal group, I suppose.
As far as the messages contained within Us, I’ll discuss my perceptions if I have the opportunity for a live conversation. I don’t feel that my solo writing ability has the skill to do them justice.
2 – The Look – I love the way Peele shoots. It’s clean and smooth, meant to create a mood in the way that Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott films do. When this film leaves the daylight and heads for spooky atmospheres, it does it with gusto.
Towards the end of the film, when the Wilsons have been reunited after Adelaide’s journey into a dark and terrifying underworld, even the daylight has become unfamiliar and menacing (more on why later). Peele uses his environments and the way that he shoots them to create these little slices of mood and tension.
3 – The Twist – Much has been made of the supposed “twist” at the end of the movie. I think a lot of your enjoyment of it will come from how you interpret the story and the themes of Us. I don’t necessarily believe that there’s a right way to feel about it, but I do not believe that it in any way was “cheap” or “cheated the audience” as some internet people have claimed.
If you don’t know (and if you don’t you should stop reading this and go see Us right now because it’s great), the movie opens in 1986 with Adelaide as a child at the Santa Cruz boardwalk with her parents. While Lost Boys is filming, by the way.
Adelaide wanders into a super creepy mirror maze that was so well constructed you just know that Peele loves those kinds of attractions. The sound of the wheezing mechanics in an owl took me back to a different era. Deep within the maze, after encountering countless reflections of herself, she discovers a mirror image that is much more insidious – an actual physical duplicate. Then the movie cuts away.
My immediate assumption was that she had been replaced with the duplicate. This assumption was reinforced by a later scene where Adelaide’s parents are discussing how she has ceased to speak and even seems like a different person as a result of her being lost for fifteen minutes.
There was no doubt in my mind that Adelaide had been replaced by what we come to find out is the “Tethered” version of herself.
But then Us went on to try to make me question my certainty by showing Adelaide as a fully functioning adult with a husband, Gabe, and two children, Zora and Jason. There was nothing insidious here. Adelaide is a loving wife and her family is very relatable. These are just regular people.
As the film progressed it played with my perceptions not just of Adelaide, but of society and of good and evil. “The Other” is a big theme here, as it often is in African-American-centric films.
Eventually we see little telltale signs that Adelaide might, indeed, be that doppelganger. But we also have to question what, exactly, that means if she is this loving family woman who has successfully existed in American society for thirty-three years.
At the very end of the film it was revealed that this was, indeed, the “evil” version. But to me that wasn’t even a twist – it was the endgame all along. To make us look at this human being without ever being certain of her nature or origins and accept her as a human. To wonder at the end of the day who we root for in this fight – the mother that we happen to have accompanied along the narrative journey and who lives a life that we can identify with or the “other” that was misplaced through no fault of her own and doomed to a strange, unfamiliar existence?
Where should our sympathy lie? And how can we possibly turn a blind eye to the real victim even though the aggressor is one of our own?
4 – The VHS – Okay, well, the movie actually opens on Adelaide’s living room television. It’s showing an ad for Hands Across America, a thing you can Google.
There are VHS tapes on either side of the television and I did my best to make note of what they were because they were so obviously obvious that I assumed they were clues to something, if only the inspirations for the movie. The only ones I completely remembered on my own were C.H.U.D., The Man With Two Brains, and one labeled “Thursday Night”. My own Googling revealed that the rest were The Goonies, The Right Stuff; though I feel like there were a couple more.
Some of the have obvious relations to the subject matter of Us, others I haven’t figured out. But whatever the case it made for a fun, appropriate visual that got my brain engaged in the mysteries of the film right out of the gate. It was sort of a “start your engines” for movie nerds.
5 – The Wilsons – The actors playing the dual main roles are incredible. Lupita Nyong’o is a damn superstar and deserves many awards for her performance as Adelaide/Red, but the rest of the family deserve a ton of credit, as well.
Winston Duke, who you probably know as M’Baku from Black Panther (and hopefully Avengers: Endgame), is a classic goofball dad. None of the power and confidence of his MCU character is on display here. When the chips are down, Gabe does his best and blows it. He is a great dad and a terrible action hero. As his Tethered counterpart, Abraham, he is terrifying.
The Wilsons’ son, Jason, is played by Evan Alex. He’s a little weirdo that all of us nerds can relate to, but he’s not the stereotypical social misfit that Hollywood tends to present. He’s an actual person and not a trope, despite the Ben Cooper style werewolf mask that rarely leaves his head.
As Jason’s Tethered self, Pluto, he uses his movements to create the same kind of unease as some of your best silent, masked slashers. He has a not-quite-human way of expressing that steals every scene he’s in. Well, that and his creepy effing mask.
Zora/Umbrae is played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and she might have delivered my favorite performance. As Zora she fits right into the “typical teenage girl with a little brother” template. She’s her own character and not just a foil to Jason, but she hits all the right sister notes. But as Umbrae she is easily the most unnerving presence in the film. She doesn’t speak like Red, she isn’t massive like Abraham, and she isn’t masked like Pluto, but her constant wicked smile and menacing presence make her the most alien and strange of the Tethered.
6 – The Tethered – There is A LOT to unpack about the Tethered – Us’ supposed antagonists. And most or all of it may not be true, as our only source of information is an extremely unreliable narrator who clearly states that even she is only guessing. And that’s the main thing you have to remember here. Many internet people are claiming that the explanation for the Tethered is unsatisfactory as though the film had given it. But Us’ narrative makes no attempt to explain these alternate humans. It all comes from the supposition of Red, who was doomed to the Tethered existence when she was a child and is also probably insane as a result of said existence.
Here are the facts – the Tethered are duplicate versions of humans. They live in abandoned tunnels under America. They subsist on rabbits. They are somehow connected to their aboveground counterparts and have to mimic their activities in whatever limited way they can. They have normal human life cycles, but none of the education or experiences that we enjoy as a society, and as such do not know how to speak or do anything other than follow their “programming”.
I hope you picked up on how loaded all of that is. I’m not here to explain it, but I kind of just did if you’re paying attention.
Red’s guess is that the Tethered are clones created by the government in order to control its citizens. When things didn’t work out, the government simply cut out and left them down in the tunnels. She posits that the difference between the Tethered and the surface dwellers is that the Tethered do not have souls.
Note: The movie does not necessarily support or portray this. This is Red’s speculation.
There are a lot of questions brought up by the physical existence of the Tethered. Where do they get clothes? Who handles the rabbits? What happens when they complete their life cycles? Do they have bathrooms?
I don’t care about these questions and I don’t care that Red’s guesses seem to make these questions more important than they are. I love the WTF-ness of the situation and could take or leave a more detailed explanation. I’m the kind of guy that can look at something like that and take it at face value without needing to know all of the ins and outs because the rest of Us is so damned engrossing and good that I feel the details of where the Tethered poop are unimportant.
The point is that they made me think and got me more engaged with this film than I do with the usual fluff I love so much. I don’t always want that, but when I get it and it works for me I love it. Especially when it manages to be hugely entertaining at the same time.
7 – SCORE! – Micahel Abels provided the score for Us and I fell in love with him from the first notes of music in the move. This score is not yet on vinyl and that is a CRIME.
It’s some classy, weird-ass, atmospheric, 70s horror film, creep-o-rama stuff and I want to play it out of our front windows every Halloween so we can scare everyone away and keep all of the Reese’s peanut butter cups for ourselves.
8 – It’s Not Funny! – While the Tethered are physically humans they have not had the opportunity to learn to behave in society. As a result, their actions seem alien and bizarre. They stumble and shamble rather than walk and bark and moan in place of speech.
I think to some in my theater this came across as comedy, but I found it extremely unsettling.
I think part of the perceived comedy came from supporting actor Tim Heidecker. He was great as the Wilsons’ very white friend, Josh (because of course he’s Josh and of course his wife is named Kitty), but the man can’t help but be funny. So when the time came for him to play the Tethered version of himself (which, by the way, was the real big twist for me) I can see how it was just kind of funny. But still more creepy.
9 – The Actual Twist – You’ve seen the trailer so you know that the Wilsons are being terrorized by what seem to be evil versions of themselves. But the moment that dropped my jaw was the reveal that there were more evil versions out there. It was a masterfully done reveal that opened the small world we had been inhabiting in the Wilsons’ summer home up to a whole new world of terrors.
The reveal comes by way of the Wilsons’ incredibly white friends, the Tyler family. Josh and Kitty and their twin daughters are in their extravagant summer home when their own set of doppelgangers show up and attack much more successfully than the Wilsons’ doubles. It shocked the heck out of me and sent my mind reeling as to the implications of their being more duplicates.
Us could have been designed to take place entirely in that house and still have been a very effective horror movie with a dash of social commentary. But opening it up into the wider world and expanding the affected beyond just the Wilson family turned the Tethered into a whole different kind of national horror; a type rarely seen since the 70s.
10 – Trapped – Here is my only real issue with Us – why did Adelaide just stay down there with the Tethered? Why didn’t she try to find her way back to the surface?
There are all kinds of possible answers and I’ll be okay with any of them:
-She’s just a child and simply couldn’t ever find her way back
-Somehow the underground facility itself reinforces the behaviors of the Tethered and once Adelaide had been down there long enough (she was handcuffed to Red’s bed) she couldn’t resist the forces that make them mirror the abovegrounders.
-Uh, probably other stuff. But I have no problem with the movie leaving us to speculate.
11 – No Ending – Us does not tie anything up in a bow. The movie closes in what I feel is a very Romero-like way, with helicopters circling over the Tethered, who have joined hands and stretch for unknown miles across the continental United States.
The Wilsons are together, but Jason seems to know that something is wrong with Adelaide.
How many people did the Tethered murder?
What is the goal of their Hands Across America-inspired display?
Are they even aware of a goal?
Now that Red is dead can the Tethered self-determine or will being above ground and/or slaying their duplicates give them more agency?
And most of all, WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS?!? (apologies if you don’t get that deep cut)
For my money, I’d rather be left to discuss these things with friends than have them laid out for me. The open-ended nature of Us means it will live on far past its theatrical run and maintain a place of pop culture significance beyond just the cultural intentions of its creator.
If you haven’t watched Us yet, I recommend you check it out. I can’t stop thinking about it and hopefully will have some opportunities to talk about it.
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