As anyone who reads this site on an ongoing basis knows, I watch a lot of movies. That’s an understatement. But rarely do I find myself unable to move at the end of a film. That’s how I found myself at the end of Us, sitting in my theater chair, staring at the credits, trying to assemble my final thoughts.
I was concerned that after Get Out that there would be no way that this movie could live up to that work of art, nor could it equal the hype. That’s been the problem with so many elevated horror films of the past few years, movies that were so hyped that they couldn’t help but be vaporware on celluloid, ciphers of films that barely hold interest much less devotion.
Writer/director/producer Jordan Peele has stated that he was dismayed by the genre confusion of Get Out, so he opted to make a full-on horror film as his follow-up. Unlike nearly every horror movie I’ve seen in a theater for the past two years, I’m happy to report he’s succeeded. The packed house we saw the film in was only too happy to scream out loud, yell things at the scream and react to every story beat as a horror movie audience should.
Unlike a movie like last year’s Halloween, Us is all about the terror of someone coming after you. There are numerous instances of stalking here that add up to true tension — as a horror movie should. It’s also a testament to Peele’s growing skills as a storyteller that there’s so much humanity under what’s also a pretty darn great popcorn movie.
The film starts with a TV showing us commercials for the beachfront at Santa Cruz and Hands Across America, the May 25, 1985 benefit and PR stunt where 6.5 million people held hands for fifteen minutes, creating a human chain across the United States. If you look closely, several VHS movies are on the shelf: The Right Stuff, The Man with Two Brains (a nod to Get Out), The Goonies (one of the evil twins yells, “It’s our time now!” a Corey Feldman quote from this film) and C.H.U.D.
Between the quote that opens the film about tunnels under America and this VHS box, what happens next shouldn’t be a total surprise. Those Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers were all the rage in the mid-80’s, as that film and whether or not it could be true were hotly debated topics in my teen years. It’s also a movie directed by Douglas Cheek — the father of Peele’s first girlfriend.
We then discover the film’s heroine, Adelaide Thomas, on a beach vacation with her parents. The film even cleverly references another film that deals with the terrors of the boardwalk, The Lost Boys, by having Adelaide’s mother say, “You know, they’re shooting a movie over there by the carousel.”
Wandering off on her own, the young girl enters a hall of mirrors where she meets her doppelganger, a moment that we only see in small bursts until the end of the film. She becomes traumatized by the experience and it’s only through becoming a dancer that she is able to express her emotions and move on.
In the here and now, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o, Black Panther), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke, also of Black Panther and someone who feels like the voice of one of Peele’s comedy characters at numerous points in the film) and their children, Zora and Jason are on their way to that very same beach. Adelaide is content to stay in the beach house and never go to the boardwalk, but her husband begs them to go to the boardwalk to hang out with another family, the Tylers (which is made up of Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss as the mother, Tim Heidecker from Tim and Eric as the dad, and their twin daughters).
Adelaide has been on edge all day. The man she saw as a child carrying a Jeremiah 11:11 sign is now a dead body being loaded onto an ambulance. And that Bible passage – “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” — doesn’t seem like a portent of anything good happening. That quote — and the 11:11 duality — is also referenced in the digital clock shown before the power goes out later in the film. A trivia note here: the doppelganger that replaces the man with the sign even has 11:11 scratched into his forehead.
This is a film based on duality and the scene that follows repeats the same journey that Adelaide made as a child, now with her son Jason wandering off, as he finds a stranger dripping blood. She instantly freaks out and gives chase, finding him and forcing her family to leave the beach.
That night, she demands that the family cut their vacation short. But then, the power is cut and the movie does what horror does best: drop the bottom out. Reality is no longer what you expect and now, a family that looks exactly like the Wilsons are on the front doorstep of their home. The police are fourteen minutes away, but that may as well be a lifetime.
This cracked mirror version of our heroes goes after the family with a vengeance. Adelaide is handcuffed to the living room table by Red, the leader. Zora, who wanted to quit track, is now chased on foot by Umbrae (the name literally means inner darkness or an eclipse). Gabe is dragged across broken glass and taken outside by Abraham. And Jason is pulled into a closet by the burned and scarred Pluto (the smallest of the planets, but also the name for the god of the underworld).
Each member of the family must deal with their duplicates on their own. Gabe, who has been a comedy figure and obsessed with his barely operating boat, uses said nautical craft to effectively murder his twin. Jason is able to realize that he can use his duality with Pluto to trap him in the closet, which gives his family time to escape to the boat.
Here’s where this movie gets even better: when the family makes their way to the home of the Tylers, we soon realize that the shadow versions aren’t unique to our hero family. No, everyone has one of these twins and they’ve all started to rise from the underworld with murderous intentions. Now, the creatures known as the Tethered are killing their surface world sides and forming a human chain.
Umbrae attacks the family as they drive off, but Zora uses the car — and not her human running ability — to kill her. But as they get to the boardwalk, the road is blocked by Pluto who has set fire to numerous cars and traps the family. Jason realizes that he’s still tied to the boy, so he makes him walk into the flames before Red kidnaps him.
Adelaide follows her twin through the hall of mirrors and then deeper and deeper into the earth, passing the cages of rabbits which we saw in the title sequence. Now, we learn that the Tethered were a government creation, made to control people before being abandoned. Now, they are forced to remain in the shadows, stuck replicating the motions of their free twins above ground. Once Adelaide and Red met in 1986, their connection was a message from God that Red must lead the Tethered into the light.
Again, any other movie would stop here. The ideas are big enough. But like the best in horror, reality can be further destroyed by the real duality of the film: the heroine that we’ve been behind the entire film is actually the doppelganger. The real Adelaide is the one who has led the uprising, with the 1986 Hands Across America action as her childhood vision of what adults do to make a statement. Only Jason realizes this, as he slides his monster mask down on his face (I love how he constantly wears this, much like Frankie wearing the Dracula mask throughout The Lady in White).
The final thing we see is the family driving an ambulance into a burning city, surrounded by helicopters and the human chain of the Tethered stretching out into the horizon.
For all the talk of movies appearing to be John Carpenter influenced, this is the most Carpenter film I’ve seen that he didn’t direct. It has all the elements — a group under attack by forces they don’t understand, evil that wants to destroy you for no reason other than it wants you dead and an ending that appears as positive as it does negative. There’s an underlying menace in Us that Carpenter’s films have and few others can achieve.
Peele gave the cast ten horror films to watch so they would have a shared language when filming this movie: Dead Again, The Shining, The Babadook, It Follows, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Birds, Funny Games, Martyrs, Let the Right One In and The Sixth Sense. I believed this allowed them to easily create a language of their own. Peele has also called out a direct inspiration for this movie came from The Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image,” in which a woman sees her twin at a train station and becomes obsessed with the fact that her evil side is trying to replace her.
Some may decry this movie for how it leaves so much unexplained: how could there be an entire world under ours, where people do the same actions as us, trapped to live in our shadow? Why do we need an explanation spelled out to us? Why can’t we accept this premise and enjoy where it takes us?
Me, I’m wondering what the symbolism of having two Black Flag shirts — the logo shirt and the My War shirt, an album that divided the band’s fanbase due to it being more Black Sabbath than fast punk rock — means. I was probably the only person in the theater concerned with such things. In fact, clothing is a big part of this movie, with the Michael Jackson Thriller shirt symbolizing the strange duality of the childlike Michael and his horrific red-clad zombie twin in the music video. In fact, Peele has referred to Jackson as “the patron saint of duality.” Hell, the Tethered wear the same red as Jackson and also have one glove on their hands.
My favorite part of this movie is that it explores the dark side of the neon hue of the 80’s. Even Hands Across America — an effort to bring people together and raise money for charity — always seemed creepy to me. I wasn’t alone. As Peele told the L.A. Times, “There was this kind of almost Stepford-creepy sense of American hope that we can do anything as long as we just hold our hands together.”
There’s also an incredibly deep duality to even the movie’s title. When they first see the family outside, Jason says, “It’s us.” But when asked who they are, Red says later that “We’re Americans.” You could see this film politically, all about the divide between the two sides of our country, with the red line of the Tethered hand in hand, splitting our nation in two.
Even the music is in here for a reason. The Luniz “I Got Five On It” is all about splitting a dime bag into two pieces. Even more intriguingly, when Adelaide tells Jason to snap his fingers to the beat of the song, she isn’t on beat. That’s because she is the side without a soul, a fact we don’t discover until the end of the movie. The Beach Boys are included as well, a band that can somehow encompass both happy go lucky odes to girls and fun, fun, fun while also containing the mental breakdown of Brian Wilson and flirtations with Charles Manson. Is it any wonder why nearly every song in this movie is from California bands, perhaps the most dualistic state in the union, a place of sun but also darkness?
Even the games in the closet have meaning in this film. Monster Trap and Guess Who?” In the latter game, you must literally find and bring together two identical faces that are hidden from one another.
And one final symbol: I wondered why the Tethered carry scissors and then it became obvious: to uncut themselves off from us, the people who they are tied to. Every decision they make, from holding hands to dressing like Michael Jackson to cutting themselves apart from us like paper dolls — are decisions made by Red, the leader who disappeared from our world when she was just a little girl and has a mindset stuck in 1986 and in childlike ways of dealing with problems. How strange is it that the Tethered’s murder weapons are so simple and lower class when the family uses objects of wealth — the geode art, a new car, a golf club, a boat, an iron from the fireplace — to dispatch their twins, until our heroine kills her shadow self with the chains that bind her?
Obviously, I’ve put plenty of thought into this film. What I’ve come out with is that Peele is no one trick pony. I’m pleased to report that Us only confirms what Get Out hinted at. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
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