Warning: Lots of Spoilers
“Us is a horror movie.” That is what Jordan Peele tweeted on the eve of his second film’s release. The horror genre brings many mixed feelings for everyone, myself included. Some see them as fascinating explorations of the darker sides of human psyche and creativity. I see them as mostly formulaic rehashes of archetypal ideas centuries old. Most horror films do say something about society, more than many give them credit for. Nevertheless, you know how the story will go, with a few changes here or there, whether it’s a monster chasing the protagonists, or a demon, or an evil human (or even toxic wind!).
Peele clearly did not set out to break the mold completely. But what he did do incredibly successfully was create a horror film from a unique perspective and with unique characters. There is the perfect amount of gore to satiate genre fans while not teetering into torture-porn territory, and there is a twist that flips the meaning of the film and shatters perceptions. It was a horror movie that everyone (of age) can enjoy and can get something out of, and that in itself is a major success. Does the social commentary piece perfectly flow with the narrative? Not always. But in the age of sequels and remakes, just the simple fact that Peele put in such an effort felt refreshing.
It’s 2019, and Hands Across America bookended a horror film. I don’t think anyone would have expected to see that, especially because most of my generation had never heard of it and most of the generation above probably forgot it. The purpose it plays is an important symbol for the story. In 1986, Hands Across America was meant to be a grand gesture that America was united against homelessness and poverty. You could say it was a minor success, as over 6 million stood together.
Of course, the people didn’t actually stretch in one continuous line across the U.S., the majority of the country’s population was left out of the route, and after operating costs less than half of the money raised actually was give to charities. But for Us, the biggest failure was that it didn’t change America’s view of poverty and low-income people. Income disparities have only grown, and the perception of poor people has not improved; it could be argued it’s devolved in many respects. America remains stuck with the views that the poor are unworthy of help at worst or at best should be hidden from public view.
Hands Across America wasn’t the only relic that gave Us an odd feeling of being stuck in a past decade. The family car seemed like an old station wagon. Gabe’s boat was clearly decades old. Jason wears a Jaws shirt and has a cheap Chewie mask with one of those painful white rubber strings attached to the back. There are Black Flag shirts in 1986 and 2019. The two songs that stood out most in the soundtrack were 1995’s “5 on It” by Luniz and 1988’s “F*ck tha Police” by NWA. Their getaway house and the beachside carnival hadn’t seemed to change since Adelaide’s youth. The list could go on.
Plenty of horror films rely on the trope that modern technology is the cause of societal ills and thus cause the horror in the film. Instead of tech being the cause of the downfall in this film, it was simply a completely ineffective tool against the destruction. Calling police did nothing, talking to the cleverly named Ophelia (“help” in Ancient Greek) only pulled up a great song, not even cars were always safe. Upper-class America had to face their reckoning for the treatment of the lower-class. Who should the audience be rooting for during the film? And once we find out who we though was Adelaide was Red and vice versa, should we have been excited, sad, scared, all of the above? While this twist left me more thinking about tons of new plot holes than Peele probably intended, it was still a daring move.
While most of the praise has gone to Jordan Peele’s seeming immediate mastery of film after two successful movies, there are many others who deserve kudos for making Us such a great spectacle. Lupita Nyong’o continued her incredible streak of ace acting performances in the two starring roles. All of the main cast deserve major kudos for playing two roles, sometimes on screen simultaneously. Cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, who previously helped make It Follows a creepy success, did wonders with this film as well. Almost all the film was shot at level with the eyes of the people in the action to create a more intimate feel, and there were other tricks even during simple dialogue scenes that gave the whole film an uneasy feel. I loved the final overhead shot of the Tethered and the disastrous scene in the background.
The social commentary subtext was class conflict in America, and for as subtle as it was for most of the film, it was often brilliant. Little things like how there was only an escalator down and not up in the abandoned subway station and the cuts between those above and their Tethered below were fascinating.
All this being said, the film also had some glaring missteps in fully actualizing that progressive message. For those in the audience who have experienced poverty or were well-educated on these issues and Peele’s perspective, they would clearly see the criticism of the upper-class families succeeding at direct expense of the poor.
The whole time, however, I was wondering what if I really did consciously fear an “other”? Then I could see this film as these normal innocent families being invaded by an evil “other” who had no right to what I have (sound familiar?). If you wanted to push even more to the right of the political spectrum, it certainly was a good case study for why everyone should practice their “Second Amendment rights”, as an arsenal probably would have helped against the scissors (if you had better aim than Wade with his flare gun). Perhaps Peele can explain how a group of Oregonian Doomsday Preppers handled the attack in an action-packed Us 2.
Seeing things in dualities may be easier to process and organize for the human brain, but reality is so much grayer. In this, the narrative strength of Us is also its weakness. I can accept that. A film with too much ambiguity and too much gray can feel bogged down, and there wasn’t a single point in Us where the film felt too slow or pushy with its messaging. But Us as a horror film ironically firmly put itself in that gray area through his insistence on duality.
Ignoring any deeper meaning, it was an immensely enjoyable horror film the whole way through, with a group of bad guys trying to kill a group of good guys and the good guys just winning in the end. Shut it off when the family reunited, and you could sleep easy. Yet right before the closing scene, Peele revealed the ultimate twist, and we were all forced to consider the ramifications as they drove off into the sunset. Who are we? Who should we want to be?