“Us”—Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his 2017 hit “Get Out”—is that rarest of things: a genuinely original horror movie. The nuances of its themes might elude some of its viewers, but taken on its own terms, it’s a remarkably thought-provoking (and occasionally thrilling) experience.
In 1986, a little girl wanders into a mirror maze on the Santa Cruz beachfront boardwalk. What she discovers within traumatizes her for years. Fast forward to the present day, where that little girl—Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o)—is now a wife and mother of two. Their family vacation soon takes a dark turn when duplicate versions of themselves, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding razor-sharp scissors, mysteriously appear in the driveway of their vacation home.
What follows is a blend of home-invasion thriller and apocalypse drama. We soon learn that all across the nation, the same phenomenon is occurring: red-suited clones are remorselessly massacring their doubles. It turns out that this was the horror Adelaide beheld so many years ago. In the mirror maze, she met her double for the first time, the first glimpse of a coming American reckoning.
(Some spoilers follow)
We eventually learn that the strange doppelgangers are the “Tethered”—products of a government program designed to see whether one soul could subsist in two different bodies. After decades of imprisonment in underground tunnels crisscrossing the United States, they have finally rallied and burst forth into the surface world. But their ultimate goals are mysterious: after reaching the surface and killing off a fair number of non-Tethered Americans, the Tethered link their hands to form a human chain extending across the entire country.—aping an old advertisement for a “Hands Across America” charitable event. It’s a striking image that (to his credit) Peele never really explains onscreen. And it powerfully illustrates one of the movie’s core themes.
Where “Get Out” centered on race, “Us” probes the anxieties of social class. In particular, the film derives its fearsomeness from a deep-seated neurosis of the American “elite”: the fear that the Rightfully Deserving Ones will be replaced or otherwise supplanted by those who are “unworthy.” The Tethered might look like “real people,” but their clumsiness and unsophisticated speech immediately betray their humbler origins.
This reading is cemented by the image of the Tethered joining their hands in one line. From the viewer’s perspective, their behavior reflects a strange, seemingly bizarre, even anachronistichope in something greater than the individual self. That sort of schmaltzy charity campaign, we tell ourselves, is so 1980s. We’re beyond that now. And in entertaining that thought, however fleetingly, we’re driven to confront the apparent inexplicability (for cosmopolitan sorts) of communal ways of being, of traditions and practices that can’t be justified in consumption-oriented terms. Those collective practices and memories, Peele suggests, are a fundamental part of what it means to be American—despite our best efforts to occlude or forget them.
As a result, the message of “Us” is certainly political, but in a party-transcendent sort of way. Right-wing indifference to the plight of the common man, Peele implies, is mirrored by cosmopolitan liberals’ self-satisfied consumerism. Neither group truly cares or understands about those deemed “less than.”
As a statement, “Us” packs a powerful punch; as a horror movie, it is rather less successful. For one thing, the film never conjures up as much fear as it really should. From the beginning, the Tethered come off as misunderstood far more than menacing—an understandable choice given the film’s themes, but one that undoubtedly drains the tension out of their first appearance. Additionally, with the exception of one ten-minute stretch in the middle of the film, “Us” lacks any particularly memorable cinematic mayhem. There are a few intermittently energetic set pieces, but there’s much more downtime here than there should be in any film labeled as a “thriller.”
That’s certainly not to say the movie lacks cinematic merit. In particular, Nyong’o’s performance (as both her “real” self and her doppelganger) is phenomenal, and the film is beautifully shot and choreographed. On a technical level, “Us” is a great success. But I’d be lying if I said it came anywhere close to “the best horror film of all time”—which it’s currently being billed as.
Leaving the theater, I overheard a boy in his late teens ask his friend, “Was that supposed to be, like, symbolic or something?” Alas, the audience for “cerebral sociopolitical drama, in the trappings of a horror thriller, with more blood than usual” may be fairly small—which would explain the currently widening disparity between critical and audience sentiments on Rotten Tomatoes. I doubt the word-of-mouth for this film will be particularly strong.
Perhaps any problem along those lines is really with us, the audience, and not with “Us.” It’s certainly a good movie—just not the one I was expecting. Maybe this premise would’ve worked better as an art film, a metaphysical drama, or something else other than an erstwhile slasher flick.
One thing’s for sure, though: “Us” is something genuinely different in a marketplace besotted with sequels, franchises, and cinematic universes. And that ingenuity is worth celebrating.