Every great horror film acts as a metaphor for some underlying truth, but Jordan Peele’s Us is one long metaphor. In his well-received debut, Get Out, (2017) Peele gave us a horror-comedy in which an Afro-American protagonist discovered that his white girlfriend’s parents and their friends were colonising the bodies of younger, healthier black people. Us extends this idea. The lead characters may be black but the entire United States is now mirrored by an underground zombie nation enslaved (unwittingly) by the folks on the surface.
Us is the story of a slave rebellion which is also an invasion – an eruption of the dark forces of the unconscious into everyday life. Yet this theme only begins to emerge after Peele has given us a double dose of classic horror tropes. It starts in 1986, with a little girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) getting lost in a funhouse where she has a frightening encounter with her doppelganger.
The scene is reminiscent of René Magritte’s painting, La reproduction interdite (1937), and this is probably intentional. In his brief filmmaking career Peele has shown himself to be a cultural bricoleur who adores dropping references. In Us, the most obvious nod is to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but there are echoes of numerous horror movies, from arthouse to trash.
After the shock opening we leap forward to the present day, in which a grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and teenage kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), are on their way to a summer vacation in Santa Cruz, California. The Wilsons are almost a caricature from a National Lampoon movie: mum, dad and the kids, wisecracks and domestic banter.
There’s a lot of scene-setting, perhaps a little too much. The creepiness kicks in when we realise that Santa Cruz is the place where Adelaide had her traumatic, juvenile meeting with her double. She doesn’t want to go back to that same beach-side setting, but because this is a horror movie she naturally does. On the beach they meet their loud, decadent whiite friends Josh and Kitty (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss), with their twin daughters, while young Jason notices something unusual… The trigger has been sprung.
Later that night the Wilsons spy four shadowy figures standing in their driveway. They are soon subjected to a violent home invasion and find that their tormentors – dressed in red boilersuits and armed with long, sharp tailors’ scissors – are exact doubles of themselves. “It’s us”, says Jason, memorably if predictably.
Only one of the doubles can actually speak, as opposed to making animal noises. “Red” is Adelaide’s double, and she has never forgotten their meeting in the funhouse. In a creaky voice she tells of a secret government experiment that cloned the population of the United States, creating an underground community – “the Tethered” – whose movements mirror those of their surface counterparts in a ghastly, impoverished charade. Red’s tale is filled with seething anger and jealousy as she compares the idyllic lives of the surface people with those of the cellar-dwellers. She announces that the time has come for the underground people to rise up and take a murderous revenge.
From this point the movie becomes a desperate struggle for survival as the Wilsons pit themselves against their doubles in a series of hair-raising scenarios.
Upon escaping the house we find ourselves in a zombie movie, with the revolution of the underground people in full swing.
Here the central metaphor looms large. We remember that when Gabe shouted at the home invaders: “Who are you people?!”, Red answered: “We’re Americans”. Us = U.S.
It’s the revolt of the have-nots against the haves, a savage assault by the American underclass on a group of masters oblivious to their existence. You probably get the idea by now. It’s only tangentially a story about race, as the Wilsons are every bit as affluent-middle-class as their grotesque white friends. Peele is concerned with a more complex issue: the way that material circumstances dictate our self-perceptions and make us blind to the lives of our neighbours.
He implies that in America today the poor people mimic the rich ones like automatons, acting out a parody of their lifestyles. In Get Out there were clear references to the era of slavery, but in Us all Americans are portrayed as slaves to their selfish and shallow desires.
There’s a weird element of idealism in the clones’ uprising, as symbolised by the 1986 project of ‘Hands Across America’, a poorly realised attempt to get people to hold hands in an unbroken chain across the United States. After a bout of murder and mayhem the rebels want to hold hands and make a statement.
None of this explains why the government would create a cloned shadow population in the first place and leave them festering away in an underground slum. This is only the first problem with Peele’s basic plot, in which an inordinate love of symbolism and metaphor has prompted him to sacrifice every vestige of plausibility.
Naturally this is only an issue if you believe that horror works most effectively when it stays closely aligned to reality. Peele sacrifices dramatic realism for a dark fantasy that delivers a concealed shot of political realism. He aims to draw in the masses with cheap thrills, only to challenge their base assumptions about American life. It’s clever, but perhaps a bit too clever to match it with the great cloud of stupidity that has settled on the nation in the age of Trump.
Written & directed by Jordan Peel
Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Madison Curry, Cali Sheldon, Noelle Sheldon
USA, rated MA 15+, 116 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review. 30 March 2019