“No one wants to talk about the end of the world.”
– Zora Wilson (Shahadi Wright Joseph), Us
“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.”
– Jeremiah 11:11, King James Bible
With Get Out, Jordan Peele established himself as a genre filmmaker with genuine ambition. His debut feature – which earned him a Best Screenplay Oscar, critical plaudits and impressive box office receipts – springboarded a familiar paranoiac thriller into a deep-seated contemplation on modern racism. Get Out was deep, exploring themes of polite middle-class racism and the exploitation, glorification and ‘gentrification of black bodies’, to quote Us star Winston Duke. Get Out was terrifying, embodying the escalating discomfort of being unwelcome and disempowered in a way that even resonates with the whitest audience member (me). Get Out was, more than anything, clever, succeeding as an allegory and a direct, simple horror film in the one package.
With Us, Peele expands both his scope and his ambition. While that renders the film slightly less effective as a pure horror package – it’s neither as scary nor as consistently engaging as Get Out – the depth and ambiguity of Us’s underlying metaphors is satisfying and thought-provoking in a way that eclipses most contemporary horror films. Like all great horror, Us understands the root cause behind its scares. In this case, Peele recognises that the true threat of home invasion – here enacted by uncanny doppelgangers – is its perversion and destabilisation of middle class security. Rather than simply exploit those fears, he interrogates them, following this thematic thread to its natural – and entirely unnatural – conclusion.
The premise of Us is initially straightforward. An eerie prologue enigmatically establishes the existence of doppelgangers, with a prepubescent Adelaide (Madison Curry) encountering her mirror in an empty amusement hall on the beaches of Santa Cruz. Decades later, now played by Lupita Nyong’o and at the head of a nuclear family unit – husband Gabe (Duke), daughter Zora (Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex) – Adelaide returns to Santa Cruz to encounter odd coincidences. Images from her past, moments of doubling and mirroring that portent poorly. Those portents are realised with the arrival of a red-clad doppelganger family, who swiftly occupy their house and make their nefarious intentions clear.
So too does Peele make his intentions clear. From the get-go, he’s unambiguous about the allegorical underpinnings of Us; when asked who they are, Adelaide’s double Red simply replies “Americans.” The metaphor grows and mutates from there, but the twists and turns awaiting in the film’s second and third acts further underline the subtext of the film. But while Us makes its thematic thrust clear – apocalyptic inequality through a lens of class in contemporary America – it keeps its specifics broad enough to allow for a prismatic breadth of interpretations. I’m not convinced by the critique that Us’s metaphor is too direct; its overriding ambiguity leaves a kind of itch in your brain that encourages you to go over the film’s precise particulars again and again … and maybe even buy a ticket for a rewatch.
I think that speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of Peele’s brand of genre filmmaking. The genre thrills of Us and Get Out are arguably undermined by an insistence of over-exposition. In Get Out, Stephen Root arrests the film’s momentum with a lengthy clarifying monologue; Nyong’o’s Tethered self is task with a similar, if more involved, speech in Us. This kind of storytelling isn’t restricted to Peele of course (Hitchcock, a big influence, used this technique often, mostly infamously at the end of Psycho). And it’s easy – and accurate! – to complain about how it undercuts the natural horror tension in each film. (Also worth pointing out how Us shifts from horror to horror-comedy to post-apocalyptic nightmare.)
However, while it does make each film (moreso Us) less effective as pure horror, it makes the subtext far more compelling. Horror is usually about the fear of the unknown. Horror sequels that insist on explanation and backstory tend to underwhelm by puncturing the central mystery of their antagonists. But Peele isn’t interested in a fear of the unknown; he’s interested in why we aren’t afraid of the known. Why are we terrified of bumps in the night and boogiemen in our closets, but we ignore the dangers of institutionalised racism and an encroaching apocalypse born of extreme capitalistic greed? By explaining most of the details of his diegesis, Peele ensures that we leave the cinema pondering big questions like this rather than logistical ones (though, granted, there are a few of those too).
Us is the rare film that rewards over-analysis; it lays out its thematic threads but refuses to tie them off. For me, the one thread that really resonates rhymes with my own lived experience. I can vividly remember awaking to news of the 9/11 catastrophe on my alarm clock radio, and my first reaction to my family was a simple “Holy shit.” My mum immediately replied with, “Language, David.” A close mirror of that scene occurs in Us (with the parent/child roles swapped), and it clarifies the import of that moment from nearly two decades ago. As members of the middle class, we focus relentless on shallow politeness, overthinking the signifiers of class and wealth – are we dressed correctly? Is our house as nice as theirs? Do I earn enough money? – while paying little attention to the shadow cast by the true threats to the society. Us is a film about that obliviousness – and so much more.