Jordan Peele’s 2008 “social thriller” debut Get Out may well follow him like a shadow for the rest of his life, but if his follow up Us is any indication then he is fully prepared to lean into the expectations as long as it lets him tackle more ambitious themes and weirder tropes. The result is a film whose pace is more operatic, messier, and less of a thriller despite its home invasion trappings. There’s something refreshing in seeing this in a horror film, the way the family at the center are not framed in danger of being torn apart, or needing to come together, but exist as an established unit capable of handling themselves. There’s something more foreboding to this as well, that perhaps the family unit is so sturdy it’s incapable of adjusting when their world is challenged. Many horror films use the anxiety of a family under attack for the audiences to relate, but when that same family’s embrace of violence is part of the commentary, it suggests a double meaning of the title depending on which family is being examined.
Us begins with an eerie prologue set in the 80s at a California boardwalk carnival straight out of Bradbury. A young black girl named Adelaide wanders away from her bickering parents and is drawn to a funhouse mirror maze where she encounters something traumatizing which has never left her mind even as she’s grown up (played by Lupita Nyong’o) and become an overprotective mom with kids and a husband. Her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) is a goof just trying to get her to relax through suggestions of different extravagant vacation ideas, her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) acts like she’s above family time, and her son Jason (Evan Alex) is obsessed with getting a magic trick to work right. Still, something in her is restless, fearful, and while their white friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker) and their daughters (Noelle and Cali Sheldon) pass their time day drinking and fretting about appearances, Adelaide feels separated by the otherworldly sense that something is coming for her and all that she holds dear.
When it does, it arrives later that night with her and her families’ faces, dressed in red prisoner jumpsuits and wielding golden scissors like the three fates of the Underworld. They are “The Tethered,” possessing some of the families’ memories, but scarred and bestial, seemingly following the commands of Adelaide’s doppelganger, Red. It’s Red’s hoarse voice which carries a deadly proclamation of retribution for living such lives of privilege and prosperity while they have existed for decade trapped below the surface having never known gentleness or even seen the sun. “What do you want?” asks Adelaide, and Red’s answer is perhaps the most succinct motivation for an antagonist in horror films to date: “We want to take our time”
Peele stages the intrusion of The Tethered into the Wilson’s home and their lives with what at first feels like undue distance, with sequences of tension replaced with a kind of dreadful ceremony. Nothing feels random, from the way The Tethered assemble in front of the fireplace to how each pair off with their respective family member to torment, and gradually as Adelaide realizes the extent of The Tethered’s plan she comes to understand that her memory of the carnival holds the answer to her place in stopping them. It’s this mystery that may signal to the audience how Peele is aiming for more than a psychological fear of the other in ourselves, but a more haunting question of human connection and alienation within society. In a time of inequality so drastic we default to justifications for why people crowdfunding for life-saving medicine is the norm, is it so surprising that those who end up at the top can wind up dehumanizing those who don’t as due to having “bad character” rather than sympathizing?
It’s a daring concept for a horror film using a familiar trope like “evil version of yourself,” infusing each scene and confrontation with subtext that gradually turns the film into a tragic fairy-tale. The film’s humor is at times broader and darker, such as a tense scene interrupted by a speaker playing NWA’s Fuck the Police, and a character who explains they should be in charge because “I’ve got the highest kill count” But what really comes through in Us is how it builds from the personal fear into an expressive view of its world without ever feeling like it stretches belief. The world expands as the characters grasp their situation instead of narrowing as they’re forced to fight, and the result is a film whose scope literally reaches across the world in a way that many apocalyptic thrillers don’t ever achieve.
But all these would fall by the wayside without the right character to bring these relevant themes home, and Lupita Nyong’o goes above and beyond to make Adelaide and Red dichotomous symbols for this theme of connection. As Adelaide, Nyong’o captures the knawing sense of insecurity and stiffness of someone who’s dealt with trauma by moving on, with Us’ use of flashbacks providing a haunting anchor into how that trauma informs her actions. This turns out to be a prescient symbol for having risen in her economic class and how it alienates her from her rich friends and the fact they end up linked is one of the most remarkable things about the character. Her determination and tears as she’s tested are complicated beyond that of the usual final girl, and create a protagonist whose psychology and arc allow the viewer to develop an opinion on her actions while still sympathizing with her
As Red however, Lupita creates an antagonist whose mechanical movement and odd expressions start out unnerving, but gradually becomes eerily beautiful as Red’s background and goal balance out her animality and her apostolic speeches. Lupita is playing a character with as many layers as Adelaide, only instead of struggling with trauma Red is struggling to express her humanity through a goal that doesn’t justify her violence, but reframes it. When asked who The Tethered are, Red responds with the declarative line “We’re Americans” and the actress makes this response feel like an intention of purpose that cuts through the mystery and allegoary to show a black woman determined to assert herself after decades of literally going unnoticed.
In the Get Out commentary, Peele likens the moment where a black person has a white liberal colonize their minds to “taking your blackness, your soul away” and it’s this decision to reframe the soul as something deeply personal and cultural that is affected by trauma that is one the stealthiest themes in the film. In Us, The Tethered are differentiated from their counterparts by the idea that they have no soul, separated from society they have little access to luxury, to ease, only raw rabbits to eat, and concepts of love or morality take second nature to survival. Yet as is revealed, Red’s lack of a soul is diagnosed as PTSD, which she is able to overcome and adjust to society, while Adelaide’s soul is beaten down by her time among the desperate half of society until she’s seen by The Tethered as one of their own, and a monster to the world she was raised in. This notion, that poverty and lack of resources are in fact a kind of harm on the soul not just the body, is complicated by the fact that the desire to escape led Red to imprison Adelaide rather than take her with her, but having adjusted to her life she forgot her where she’d come from and ends up allying against others like her even as she feels their humanity more than Gabe or her daughter
You could hardly think of a better analogy for how the American class system incentivizes people to work for advancement, but inevitably requires them to keep down others who seek to do the same out of fear of losing one’s place and all they’ve earned. Despite the American dream of mobility through hard work and dedication, The Tethered are born into a position where they are designated inhuman inherently, while viewers can see through Red that it’s the environment that plays the biggest role in their violence and lack of “civilized” behavior. Yet they are not violent criminals who descend into cannibalism, but human beings whose desire for freedom and lack of distractions means they can band together for a common goal, while the privileged class can only stagnate in existences of riches and excess that eventually become their tombs, ignorant of the other classes when they could try to reach out instead of fearing them
Yet Us complicates this further when we see The Tethered residing underground where they bizarrely imitate the people on top, living their lives in the shadows of the higher ups, imitating them in tragic parody of the American way of life. The meaning is well-worn, but hits harder as we realize Red escaped from this prison, only to find herself imitating it despite how it never appears to give her much satisfaction. We are forever chasing the shadows in our mind, so determined that we will be satisfied when we fit into our ideal shoes that we don’t wish to stop and ask where these shadows came from and why we hold so tightly to them. The grand irony brought home by the way Red escapes to the surface by putting on the same shirt Adelaide’s father won, symbolizing how her acceptance into that world began with taking on the superficial trappings of that world rather than allying with Adelaide.
By the end of the film we’ve witnessed a revolution of sorts, won through solidarity in the name of a goal the film has primed us to accept. We’ve learned however that even a great social movement for the rights and freedoms of the oppressed class will be resisted, even by those within it. As the sun dappled hills reveal miles of The Tethered, hands clasped and finally relishing in the suns rays, we see Adelaide in the driver’s seat of the Wilson’s car, fleeing to escape or perhaps looking for the “resistance” that will form against these “invaders”. The unspoken question throughout the film is why we can’t connect and see each individual as part of the same human family? Why do we make monsters of the people who deserve the same quality of life as we do? The answer suggested by the look Adelaide gives her son is that after enough time in a society of individuals WE chose the easier path where we can lock away the knowledge only an artificially barrier separates US from others. Because to face the possibility that we are connected is too much responsibility, and so we become them instead of us.