We Need to Talk About US

Wow.  It’s been a while.  But I told you that I wasn’t gone for good.  So, thank you for clicking on – and hopefully reading – this column (and for not abandoning me while I regained my strength, but more on that in a bit).  Because if you’ve seen Jordan Peele’s Us, then you know you want to read and talk about Jordan Peele’s Us.  I know I had to.  I saw the film during its Thursday preview screening on the night before its official release and simply couldn’t stop thinking about it.  The film, itself, actively compelled me to see it again.  I didn’t just want to.  I had to.

This is not a review of Us.  My feelings on the quality of the film should already be evident and I obviously think everyone who has even the slightest bit of interest in intelligent cinema or intelligent . . . anything . . . should see this movie.  More than once.  But what I’m attempting to do here is analyze and dissect the film, as so many others have already done in the past few days.  But I want to put forth some thoughts and ideas that I haven’t seen anyone else put forth.  (Perhaps others have, somewhere.  But I haven’t seen it, myself.)

I’m going to do this in two sections: a non-spoiler section (which will be significantly shorter) and a spoiler-filled section where I can really plant my feet in the foundation of the film and let it fly for those of you who have also seen it.  Obviously, I’m going to start with the . . .

Non-Spoiler Analysis

I’m using the word “analysis” loosely, here, as it’s nearly impossible to analyze any film without diving into the specifics, but this one, especially.  What I want to do here is give those who haven’t seen the film a taste of what to expect without spilling the beans on any of the minutiae, because my goal with this column is the same as my goal has always been: to get people excited about movies.

With all the subtext and metaphors permeating Us, I don’t want to ignore the fact that it’s a tremendous horror film on its surface, as well.  When I got home on Thursday night, my house was just a little . . . too . . . quiet.  As quickly as I could, I turned on the television and flipped it over to “Family Feud”.  I didn’t just need background noise; I needed funny background noise.

Peele loves horror and it shows.  While there are maybe three or four jump-scares, the majority of the film eschews that gimmick for a constant state of looming menace.  The villains (referred to as “the Tethered”) aren’t interested in hiding and jumping out from around corners.  They’re bold and, from that, the threat and fear emanate.  Having said that, some story elements are presented quickly with a jump-scare element in order to prevent foreshadowing, and it works.  So, don’t allow all of the deeper meaning and commentary that Peele includes prevent you from enjoying the film’s more obvious surface qualities.

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But also don’t allow the opposite to happen.  There’s so much going on underneath the surface of this film, with some of it being more obvious than other aspects, that it would be cheating both yourself and Jordan Peele for you to ignore it or not give it a second thought.  As I said, I’ve been thinking about this movie in nearly all of my quiet moments for five days, now.  And that’s how Peele wants it.  Dare to listen to the voice of someone else.  Movies are art and art helps us grow when we take the time to embrace it.

I will mention that Peele has explicitly stated that the themes of the film are not about race but that he cast an African-American family as the leads simply because it’s so rarely done unless the story necessitates it.  And not only do we need more of that – the normalization of mainstream entertainment that isn’t about white people (something that last year’s best film Searching also succeeded in doing) – but we also need to support such efforts.  As my favorite critic Scott Mendelson says, it’s not enough to go see Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done regarding your support of diverse filmmaking.  Everybody sees those movies; they don’t count.  So, there is no good reason not to support this film.  Even if horror freaks you out, then – hey! – here’s an opportunity to face your fears in a totally safe way.  Look: art is helping you grow, again!  But don’t avoid a challenge.  Just yesterday, I had a student tell me he wasn’t even going to try to learn fractions (yes, fractions.  Thanks, American public schools!) because he didn’t think he could do it.  A college student was afraid of the challenge of elementary school math.  It was the most disheartening, disappointing, maddening, and even – in a way – hurtful moment of my career.  That isn’t an exaggeration.  Don’t be that guy.

That’s all I’ve got for those who haven’t already seen Us.  Go see the film, then I hope you come back and read the rest.

(Also, I suppose this is the best place to discuss whether or not I’m back.  I think I am, but not at the pace that I used to keep.  This film made me so excited to write and I want to keep it that way – where I write because I want to and not because I feel like I have to.  So, maybe I’ll stick to columns like this rather than formal reviews.  I like think pieces and they’ve typically been my most popular posts, anyway.  So, I won’t be writing five times a week but it likely won’t be six months between posts, either.  Thank you for understanding as I strive to find that perfect balance.  And thanks for coming back.)

Okay, for those who have already seen it, let’s have some fun.  The rest of you, from this point on, beware of . . .

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Spoiler-Filled Analysis

Before I dive in, this has already been done expertly by Jacob Hall and Ben Pearson over at Slashfilm.  I strongly urge you to read their dissection at this link as I will strive to avoid repeating their ideas (unless I mention them to use as a springboard).  They’ve already touched on many components of the film better than I would have.  Their deep dives into 11:11 and the politics are especially erudite and deserve your attention.  What I want to do, now, is touch upon ideas they didn’t mention and maybe add to some others.

And where do I even begin?!  I went into the second viewing so focused on the subtext and allegories that the horror was almost completely lost on me, this time around.  But I made many connections that I couldn’t have made without being aware of the ending, where we discover that Lupita Nyong’o’s two characters of Adelaide Wilson and her doppelgänger – the leader of the Tethered, Red – were switched upon their first meeting.  Just having that perspective opened up my eyes and my brain to other observations that I couldn’t have possibly known to be looking for during my first watch, even if Peele plants the seeds at a near-subconscious level.

Much like Ben said at the link above, during my first viewing, I actually suspected on multiple occasions that the two had been switched in the fun house but I got so swept up in the narrative and the plight of the Wilsons that I completely forgot about that as a possibility until the Big Reveal was made.

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Speaking of that reveal and switch, something stood out to me.  Who was the Jeremiah 11:11 man?  He seemed to be more than just another of the Tethered as he had a presence in both worlds and also had some knowledge as to what was going on even as the girl who would become Red initially passed him on her way into the fun house.  I suspected he might be one of the architects of the experiment that created the Tethered to begin with and then something happened that actually supported that theory.

In her final speech, Red tells Adelaide that “God brought [them] together on that night”.  At that time, we see each of them pass a version of the Jeremiah 11:11 man.  Well, who would Red see as “God” but the one who was responsible for the creation of all that surrounded her?  And, to me, those two men didn’t appear identical, though I may need a third viewing (gosh darn it!  What a shame!) to confirm that.  I know what you’re thinking: Red wasn’t created by the same person or people who created the rest of the Tethered, so he wouldn’t be God to her.  Maybe, maybe not.  We all have different perspectives on God, and many are polytheistic and see any being capable of creating life as godly.  So, it could fit – especially if she’s been witness to some otherworldly power that he possesses, allowing her and the other Tethered to connect to their above-ground versions.

I also had additional thoughts about the rabbits.  I initially noticed that all but three (unless I overlooked some) of the caged rabbits during the opening credits were white, but since Peele stated that race isn’t a designated theme in the film, that didn’t seem like the trail to follow.  So, rather than focusing on those few that weren’t white, I thought about the many that were.  Almost all of the rabbits were white rabbits, and what’s the most famous white rabbit in all of fiction?  Well, the one who leads Lewis Carroll’s Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.  (Alice also goes through the looking glass, which has some significance here, as well.)  We see the rabbits right at the entrance of the underground tunnel, leading Adelaide (Wilson.  “A. W.”  “Alice in Wonderland”.) down to face her own “Red” Queen, with the twist that it’s Adelaide/Alice who in a sense takes off Red’s head – at least internally.

Speaking of the rabbits, did anyone notice Zora’s (Shahadi Wright Joseph) shirt as she and the others watched her dad Gabe (Winston Duke) play around on his new boat?  Yep – a white rabbit.  Meanwhile, Adelaide and Gabe’s son Jason (Evan Alex) sports a Jaws shirt.  Jaws, of course, was an unseen threat from below whose existence was unknown to its eventual victims.  Also, at the fair, young Red wants prize number 11 (after watching News 11 at 11).  But don’t the 11s come in pairs?  Well, yes.  Prize number 11 is the Michael Jackson “Thriller” shirt and those lowers case Ls in “Thriller” look an awful lot like “11”.  In addition, besides the Tethered, there’s another set of twins in the film: the Tyler’s daughters, Becca and Lindsey.  On the beach, there’s a humorous moment where they speak in unison, calling multiple jinxes on each other.  It seems like a throwaway laugh, at the time, but actually serves to remind the audience that twins are often said to have a telepathic connection, setting the stage for the connection that would later be revealed between the Tethered and their doubles.  Here we have a lot of fun examples of Peele’s attention to detail that also subtly set the stage for the events to come.

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Let’s look at the connection between the Tethered and their doubles.  It does appear to be supernatural or magical, in some way.  But why do the Tethered experience a rote version of their doubles’ lives, aware of their doubles’ experiences, but not the other way around?  I actually think this one is easy – at least metaphorically speaking.  Peele has said that the movie is largely about looking at ourselves as the source of evil instead of pointing the finger at others (Jason even tells Gabe that “when you point at someone, you’re pointing three fingers back at yourself”).  Our natural tendency to blame others means we ignore the evil inside of ourselves.  We pretend it’s not there, blissfully unaware of its very existence.  On the other side of the coin, that evil will try its best to eat away at and destroy us, and it will succeed if we allow it.

It wasn’t a coincidence that each of the Wilsons killed their own doppelgänger.  We are each responsible for killing the evil inside of us.  No one else can do it for us.  We see this evil all over the place, if we look.  People in our everyday lives sabotage their own goals by being too quick to judge and condemn and hate, even turning their backs on and attacking their own allies in the process.  Peele wants us to be more self-aware and put a stop to this because we’ll destroy ourselves before we destroy what we proclaim to be our target.

This idea is further developed in the dance – but not the first dance where Red initially gains her own power and identity.  There was a second dance.  This “dance” was a fight from Adelaide’s perspective, but in her final confrontation with Red, Red is clearly dancing while Adelaide is flailing wildly and fruitlessly.  The two have switched places, back to where they originally began, with Red confident and elegant like those above – the only member of the Tethered who ever had a literal or metaphorical voice – and Adelaide monstrous, unwieldy, and inarticulate – like the Tethered.  It’s only through good fortune – and a little bit of right place, right time – that Adelaide wins.  But does she really win?  After her physical victory, she seems to have completely regressed back to her original role as a member of the Tethered – until she sees her son Jason, once again.

Let’s talk about Adelaide and Jason.  My original take on the film’s message after my initial viewing was that we are each the product of our own environment.  Adelaide and Red didn’t end up who they were because of genetics.  It was because of where and how they were raised.  Adelaide was raised with privilege.  Red was raised in isolation with a bunch of genetic experiments.  Even worse, when she had privilege, she didn’t appreciate it (she didn’t take a single bite of her scrumptious candy apple at the fair).  Then, she lost it all.   That’s going to weigh on a person.  But how about their children?  The effects of being brought up as the Tethered were obvious on Umbrae and Pluto.  But what about Jason and Zora?

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These two children were raised by a mother who had a foot in both worlds – that of the Tethered and that of the world above.  Jacob and Ben at Slashfilm touch on Zora, but I want to point out that Adelaide and Jason seem to have an especially strong connection.  As the family listens to “I Got 5 on It”, Adelaide encourages Jason to get into the rhythm, which he spends the rest of the film doing.  Jason appears to be a little more “tethered”, himself, than the rest of his family – even when compared to his mother.  He wears a mask, much like his doppelgänger Pluto.  And, as I mentioned just above, he serves as a tether for his mother, who he brings back from the brink after she kills Red.  But he also brings back a rabbit, a little bit of that Wonderland.  What does that signify?  He already displayed the ability to control his doppelgänger by choice – something no one else can do.  I don’t have any easy answers for Jason’s role, here, but this is something to chew on and ponder.  There’s something here that I can’t yet put my finger on.

The most impressive part of all of this is that Peele has managed to craft a film that is not only scary and intelligent but is scary because it’s intelligent.  Weeks ago, after seeing the trailer for Us, I mentioned to a friend that I hoped we didn’t get an explanation as to what exactly the villains are, because it’s scarier not to know.  And, lo and behold, we didn’t get an explanation.  Not a full one, at least.  Think about it, how many horror movie explanations have avoided taking the air out of the scares?  There have been a few . . . but a very, very few.  Peele is smart enough to understand that less information equals more terror.  But he also gives us enough information to make any number of points and to remind us that the biggest terror exists as close to home as it can get – inside of us – and it’s starting to get out of control.  If we don’t check it, soon, it will be too late.  Hopefully Zora was wrong when she said that “nobody cares about the end of the world”.

If you’re glad I’m back, share this post!  If I feel like people are happy to see me, I’ll be more likely to do this, often!

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