This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Rembrandt Q Pumpernickel’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
On January 12th, 2007, one of the most renowned violinists in the world, Joshua Bell, dressed himself in plain clothes, grabbed his $3.5 million dollar violin, and spent around 45 minutes playing in a Washington D.C. metro. Not including the one person who recognized him, Bell made $32.17, and less than ten people clearly stopped to listen of just over 1000 passerbys. When this story went viral, at the time, most people were semi-aghast that such beauty could be ignored by anyone, even people rushing to work or otherwise bustling through their days, but I felt differently. I appreciated those that stopped, those that listened, those that could break out of their routine to see something outside of their current field of vision, but I recognized the survival instincts at play in everyone else’s behavior. The world is full to the brim of stimuli, and any attempt to take it all in will result in a mental break. Given the particular world we live in with its global reach but capitalistic pressure to only work, the comparison between the amount of stimuli available compared to the amount of time allowed to take them in is astronomical.
PTSD shatters the ability to process the world in this way, to protect yourself from intrusive stimuli. This is the danger of being able to see everything, non-threatening stimuli can trigger severe anxiety and fear, and mildly threatening stimuli’s threat becomes so exaggerated as to trigger mental and/or emotional paralysis. Us delivers, in my opinion, one of the best cinematic representations of PTSD that I’ve ever seen. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is pressured by her family into returning to the beach, the site of a traumatic experience as a child. While nothing of “significance” happens (as people other than Adelaide would define it) during this day trip, the experience is disturbing for Adelaide. The aesthetics capture the intensity of her perspective as what should be some of the pleasures of the beach (seagulls, waves, other kids playing) have their audio turned up and filtered to be louder and harsher than is palatable. So unsettling is this time for Adelaide that she decides to reveal to her husband, for the first time in their long relationship, what happened to her as a child.
As this is a horror movie though, Adelaide’s PTSD isn’t something that she needs to process and medicate to survive better in the current world; it reveals the real dangers that are on their way to upset her and her way of life. Her doppelgangfam, called the Tethered--a group of “soulless clones,” arrive shortly after her traumatic episode. Complicating this PTSD moment even further is the film’s twist ending: Red reveals that Adelaide had switched places with her as a child. The human child is kidnapped and handcuffed in the underground tunnels where the Tethered live while the “soulless clone” escapes and uses therapeutic processes to assimilate into the above ground world. The PTSD that she seemed to be experiencing early is in fact guilt and worry over the consequences of the violence and horror she performed on another (to escape her own violence and horror).
Some viewers didn’t like this twist, but for me, especially in conjunction with the earlier beach scene and semi-confession, the twist makes the movie, reveals the true driving force of the film. Let me step out of the film momentarily (again). When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, a lot of people said something along the lines of “the mask of civility was off in the USA.” Basically, they were arguing that while the USA had always been a violent, racist, sexist, imperialist nation, that the election of Donald Trump removed any pretense that it wasn’t. I agreed at the time, but now, I ask if there ever truly was a mask of civility and who was it for? Certainly the people who were being materially harmed by the white supremacy that this country was built on, for instance, never believed in the mask. Nor could those who were quite actively taking part in American violence say that the mask was for them, if it does exist. Rather what little mask there was, was for what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “white moderate” in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” those who profited from the harm, were complicit in it, but somehow convinced themselves that they were neither of those things.
In horror films, maybe more than any other type, there is a clear protagonist and antagonist; maybe the protagonist brought the horror on themselves, and maybe the antagonist is justified in their horror, but the audience knows who they are rooting for. Us confounds that desire deeply, and I believe that plays into the class metaphor as well. The fight between the Tethered and other people is semi-meaningless. The revolution that the Tethered are staging isn’t against the true criminals, just those one comfort level above them and with very intended irony, essentially themselves. Their great revolt is a symbolic but non-material gesture against those that harmed them based off a child’s memory of “Hands Across America.” The humans, at the center of the story, seek nothing else other than to protect the way of life they have previously established. They don’t really care about the wider effects; they’re not interested in joining the revolution.
And so we have an unreal mask that doesn’t exist, but people make believe that it does for their own comfort. We have an inert movement because the state and corporations have become too big to be affected by non violent resistance (see the armed helicopters at the end). We have a faceless enemy that does exist but is out of reach (and also has its tendrils in all of us, our survival instincts being activated to protect the comforts we do have in favor of equity). We are protected from encroaching destruction by our own brain chemistry and breaking that chemistry fundamentally upturns our ability to process the world. And so we are left with the choice of either Red or Adelaide: to die or to run. But where will we run? After all, there is no Them to get away from.
There is only Us.
This will be my final long/full-length review for Letterboxd. I will continue to do blurbs and one-liners here, but I will be creating a Patreon for my long form writing and videos from now on. Watch this space for more details.