Us ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"We are . . . Americans."

It's 1986. Ronald Reagan is serving his second term as President of the United States. The Cold War is drawing to an unofficial close. Marketing for the charity fundraiser "Hands Across America" - ostensibly aimed towards fighting hunger and poverty - pop up on TV and even T-shirts.

A fun-loving, yet somewhat reckless father takes his wife and young daughter to the Santa Cruz boardwalk for a night at the carnival. And because this is a Jordan Peele movie, this opening scene perfectly captures the dread of our everyday anxieties while ramping it up to 11; in this case, a child wandering away from her parents - with a little smattering of fantastical, possibly supernatural horror to boot.

Naturally, Adelaide soon finds herself in the creepiest hall of mirrors conceivable (is there any other kind, really?) and there has a terrifying, traumatizing encounter with, well, herself.

But back it up a little.

The entryway to that fateful carnival attraction bears the name "Shaman Vision Quest" and features a particularly ugly caricature of a Native American. Decades later when Adelaide (if you're reading these words right now, I don't even need to mention how incredible Lupita Nyong'o is here in both of her roles) reluctantly returns to the same Santa Cruz beach with her husband and two kids, this exact house of horrors remains right where it was - but with one notable change. It's since been renamed "Merlin's Enchanted Forest", and sloppily taking the place of the former Shaman is a cartoon of the cutesy, unassuming Arthurian wizard.

The past has been covered up, and the present acts as if it never happened.

It's true that Us has so much on its mind and feels so dense at times (the less generous would probably call it unfocused or scattershot) that it practically functions as a Rorschach test, daring us to bring our own personal experiences and fears and biases to the fore before forcing ourselves to confront them - not unlike a mirror does - filtered all the while through Peele's unique lens. Whether we like what we see staring back at us is another matter entirely.

But personally, I keep coming back to this simple juxtaposition of images: the callousness required to flippantly invoke one of America's most appalling foundational crimes, and the even more heinous attempt to whitewash history by covering it up with an appealing fantasy.

This, I think, is the core idea that holds Us together even when it threatens to come apart at the seams later on.

Adelaide's youngest, Jason, almost exactly mirrors (there's that word again) her own horrific experience on that same beach when he wanders off from his family during their vacation and unknowingly comes across the first of the "Tethered". The vacant man surreptitiously garbed in red is facing away from both Jason and us viewers, but Michael Gioulakis' camera purposefully focuses on the fact that there is - quite literally - blood on his hands.

This recurring theme of drawing attention to the sins of America's past and its all-consuming desire to rewrite its own present extends, obviously, to the Tethered themselves - stripped of autonomy and relegated to sterile tunnels devoid of the endless possibilities above. Their very existence, if one can even call it that, is nothing short of a grotesque mimicry of life itself.

But note how composer Michael Abels, Gioulakis' framing, and Peele's steady eye for detail reflects all this in the 101's of filmmaking, too.

Abels' score mixes unnerving tension during the gleefully nightmarish home invasion set pieces amid operatic, even mythic overtures elsewhere as the scope of the narrative is fully uncovered. Taken together, it conveys a sense of dueling forces that stands out even more when you consider Gioulakis' emphasis on close-ups and uncomfortably intimate shots of both 'normal' humans and their Tethered counterparts.

Audio, visual, and thematic storytelling are all working in sync with the script towards one overarching message that seems painfully clear: Peele is exploring a top-to-bottom institutional reckoning in Us, but never for one second can we forget the individual cost - our inherited guilt - as well.

As a clumsy exposition dump late in the game reveals, a government experiment is responsible for these 'shadows' of every person in the (*ahem*) US, and the unexplained abandoning of this project - to say nothing of stripping them of all free will and basic comforts - betrays a certain cowardly sense of shame about such actions from the unknown perpetrators.

Rather than be cast aside and forgotten as so many other systemic injustices have been, Adelaide's double 'Red' leads a full-scale revolution on outside society that culminates in a perverse reversal of the original Hands Across America stunt - a real-life event that, it must be noted, only took the appearance of solving deeper issues and ended up proving largely ineffectual.

And this is where that twist comes in.

Though I have my quibbles with exactly how it was revealed (less is more!), those who hadn't guessed it from the start finally learn how a young Red took an unprecedented step in that hall of mirrors and forcibly switched places with Adelaide. What we thought all along was a PTSD-ridden victim confronting the demons of her past suddenly turns into something far more disturbing and complicated - all while upending our assumptions of what exactly separates, well, them from us.

Despite going back and forth over such a divisive choice, this is ultimately how I found myself accepting why it was so necessary.

As pointed out by critic Ben Pearson, Us might be one of the first (and certainly most significant) films to have been wholly produced in a post-Trump America. In an era that's become so defined by a fear of the external foreign threat, it only stands to reason that Peele would craft an entire project rejecting that bigoted premise and instead yank our attentions inwardly.

And what better way to dramatize this than by leaving us with the implication that the only tangible difference between the seemingly normal Adelaide* and the terrifyingly unhinged Red is a matter of circumstance and environment and, yes, privilege.

We don't get to feel good about any empty gestures of goodwill this time, Peele seems to be saying.

The more energy we spend pointing fingers at the ubiquitous 'other', the less we realize that we've been invaded by something else entirely - something far closer to home than we'd ever like to think. The more we live our lives of decadence and comfort and indulgence, the less awareness we have of those suffering as a direct result of our choices.

Which brings me to, of all things, Mad Men.

I don't know whether it's the nature of Elizabeth Moss' casting** or simply the fact that I'd finished watching Mad Men only days before and so it's been fresh in my mind, but a weird link between that and Us couldn't help but materialize.


Mad Men spans the entire decade of the ever-changing '60s and ends in 1970 with Don Draper/Dick Whitman at a California retreat, surrounded by the hippies and counterculture youths he's always hated - the ones who had seamlessly adapted with the times, the ones who'd passed him by completely, the ones he could never even dream of relating to . . . yet it's in their midst that he finally seems to grasp some final measure of peace and profound self-understanding after a lifetime of running from his past and an inability to change.

It almost seems too good to be true. It's almost too perfect an ending.

It's like that jarring cut to the Coca-Cola commercial immediately after Jon Hamm's self-satisfied smile, which presents this impossibly idealistic paradise of people from every nation of the world uniting as one and inviting us to "Buy the world a Coke".

Way back in the first season, Don has a rather prescient conversation with Rachel Menken, one of the earliest of his many lovers. The topic of (what else?) 'utopia' comes up and, deeply informed by her Jewish background, she explains that the Greeks had dual meanings of the word: the first which roughly translates to the traditional concept of "The Good Place", and the second inevitably darker side of the coin, "The Place That Cannot Be."

Now think back to Us - specifically, the impossible dream of the original Hands Across America stunt. Despite the good intentions, the massive operating costs meant that less than half of the $30+ million raised actually ended up being donated to the poor and needy.

It felt like a noble and worthy enough goal, to be sure, but it didn't really make much of a difference in the end beyond making people feel good for accomplishing very little.

There's definitely something altruistic, something utopian about the image of all colors and creeds coming together to rejoice in one single goal (even if that goal is as blatantly indulgent and cynically capitalistic as selling soda) . . . just as there's a powerful statement inherent in the idea of millions holding hands and literally bridging an entire nation for a good cause.

But just as the existence of the Tethers represents a darker and more disturbing reflection of everyday society, their twisted take on this countrywide stunt (conceived, you'll recall, from a young Adelaide - the real Adelaide - watching that commercial*** before her abduction) seems to hearken back to that second definition of 'utopia' - a place that simply cannot, no, should not be.


Biblical references and Old Testament promises of fire and brimstone. An escalator descending (only descending, mind you) into the depths of hell. Pointed commentary on masculinity. Cages of mostly white bunnies interspersed with a small handful of black and brown ones. Eerie coincidences. Doubles and mirrors and twins.

You'll drive yourself mad trying to fit all these symbols, all these seemingly disparate pieces into a neat and tidy puzzle. And indeed, this movie almost feels reverse-engineered to prevent that sort of adherence to real-world logic in the first place.

Instead, Jordan Peele paints with a particularly broad brush where audiences were likely expecting the precision and laser-guided focus of Get Out. As incisive and provocative as his debut inarguably was, a certain measure of distance remained where we could safely fall back on memes and rousing, crowd-pleasing beats.

Not that Us is particularly dour or lacking in much-needed dark humor and thrills, but there's a pervasive sense this time around that Peele is denying us even the most innocuous distractions.

What we're left with is a harrowing trip through America's own id. Red practically says so herself, after invading the Wilson's beach house and identifying herself and the rest of the Tethers by nothing more than nationality. Loaded words like "slavery" or "genocide" might not ever be mentioned by name, but then again they never are in real life anyway.

White America has done too good a job in burying the past, and the rest of us have been too willing to follow their lead and put it out of our minds altogether. Even the most dissenting take can't turn a blind eye at the central metaphor of a group of forgotten individuals denied access to our fundamental lifestyles (then again, maybe it can), abandoned underground until the past rises up and none of us can afford to ignore it any longer.

Along those lines, maybe Us was never actually a mirror at all. Maybe it's a microscope, turning our perceptions on their head and giving us the chance to look a little deeper at the true reality that has remained unseen for far too long.

But it's up to us to take that look in the first place. Nobody is coming to save us. There are no heroes or villains.

There's only us.

* A fun thing I picked up on that made infinitely more sense after the twist: there are multiple occasions where Jason witnesses his mother in a fit of bloodlust, almost completely regressing to the inhuman behavior of the other Tethers we see before barely pulling herself back from the brink. So of course he's starting to put the pieces together when he shares that worried, meaningful look with 'Adelaide' at the end.

** Another interesting aspect: notice how quickly and efficiently the Tethered versions of Kitty and and Josh Tyler dispatch the family. A white, upper class, privileged family. And another materialistic white victim who has the misfortune of interrupting Zora and her Tether Umbrae's deadly chase. But both the Tylers' and the Wilson family's own Tethers mostly toy with our main four, harming them but always delaying any act of actual killing that goes far beyond "plot armor". That's a tantalizing thread which I'd need another viewing or two to really pin down, but it's certainly a statement.

*** The most powerful ideas, Peele suggests, can come from something as routine as an ad, a television show, or perhaps even a movie. The start of a revolution, then, can begin with a work of art as minor and human as a dance.

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