Arts, Movies, Review

Peele Ponders American Ideals in Horror Movie ‘Us’

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start. Is Us better than/as good as Get Out? Well, no. But it doesn’t have to be. Us is a great movie, and a fantastic horror movie. So, just like Get Out, go see it. In theaters. Now.

Now that that’s over with, Us is Jordan Peele’s newest production from his studio Monkeypaw Productions (which has a killer credit logo), following his directorial debut of Get Out. And like Get Out, Us is a horror film interwoven with social satire. But unlike Get Out, it does not focus mainly on racial ideas (the commodification and sexualization of black bodies, liberal racism, interracial relationships, etc.). Us has a different message.

The film sets up a fairly straightforward plot. A lovely and loving (and sometimes amusingly yet harmlessly dysfunctional) family goes to their lake house near Santa Cruz, Calif. As with many horror movies, the audience watches as the picturesque story is set up and waits for something to go horribly wrong. Lupita Nyong’o plays the smart and logical Adelaide Wilson, matriarch of the family. Her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), plays the goofy and stereotypically dad-like father. Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) is the teenage track star daughter, while Jason (Evan Alex) is the quiet younger son. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Adelaide had a traumatic experience as a young girl at this same beach with her parents. Before too long, the horror begins. Another family, all dressed in red jumpsuits holding golden shears, arrives at the house to torment and kill the Wilsons. The scarier part: They’re identical copies of the Wilsons.

Without giving too much away about the film (although if you’re trying to avoid spoilers why are you reading this review?), Us explains the nature of its terror. In the abandoned network of sewers and access tunnels beneath the United States, millions of people have lived lives of pain and suffering, “tethered” to a person who lives above. Underground, they shadow the every movement of their aboveground counterpart. The “tethered” have organized an uprising to kill and replace the unknowing overlanders. As far as horror goes, it’s a fairly novel approach.

Clearly Peele is saying a lot with this movie. There is even more that he could be saying but does not make explicitly clear. And subsequent viewings and discussions of the film will certainly illuminate more of its nuances. But there are clues to its message. Early in the film, Adelaide asks her doppelgänger, a tethered named Red, who she and her family are. Her answer: “We’re Americans.”

Maybe Peele is satirizing the American people’s fear of immigration. The tethered people (try to) look and act like us, and they have come to displace us (to steal our jobs and our lives and our women/children). And if we allow them, they’ll become Americans, too.

But Peele might be saying something else. Perhaps the Wilson family, our protagonists, are the progressive and “level-headed” people. The tethered represent our fear of the hitherto silent far-right population. They wear red, they are brazen in naming themselves Americans, and were mostly forgotten until this precipitous moment. Like the tethered, living under the ground, they have always been present. They resent the easy and flashy lifestyle of the Wilsons and others, and are finally coming to take back what they believe is rightfully theirs.

But whatever the real or main message is, this film is extremely powerful. Every actor in this movie turns in a stellar performance—especially impressive considering they each also play the role of their evil twin. The writing is poignant but impressively comedic when necessary. The horror is due more to existential dread than to jump scares. The movie’s plot arc is wonderfully well-done, especially as Peele splices in clips from the past. The soundtrack fits perfectly (hint: listen to the lyrics of “I Got 5 On It,” the main theme of the movie, after watching).

Us cements Peele and his production studio as cinematic powerhouses. As a horror film, standing apart from social commentary, Us is very good. But, when seen with an eye to its meaning, the movie really shines.

Featured Image by Universal Pictures

March 24, 2019