Jordan Peele is proving to be a unique voice in the world of horror. His movies are thrilling and he adds a wink and nod to the proceedings, proving to be darkly funny and funnily dark. While his debut feature Get Out struck a chord with audiences using very direct themes of race, his sophomore release is proving a little harder to crack. Although Us is similarly upfront about its core messaging, it throws a lot at the audience and is grounded less firmly in the American horror tradition as evidenced by his complete disregard for the laws of structuralism in favour of Lynchian metaphors and social commentary.
Us is a difficult movie to discuss because it lends itself to a quite a few possible interpretations. While the plot elements are straight-forward, it assembles its symbolism neatly and leaves the audience to decide how they wish to view the proceedings, the character’s inner turmoil, and the morality of their choices (or lack thereof).
That said, it’s all spoilers from here on out. Since I’m not providing one, an in-depth synopsis is available here for those who may need it.
The New Horror Scene
It’s probably cliche to point out that the current horror scene has brought overt social and political themes back into the genre, but it happens to be true. While the genre has always carried socio-political components worth analysing, it’s becoming popular to put these themes front and centre and construct narratives in such a way as to hinge entirely on their applicability. For example, George Romero did not intend for zombies to turn into shorthand for mindless consumer behavior, but as symbols they were extensively applied in that way by audiences.
The recent crop of horror movies, on the other hand, go for the jugular in terms of metaphor and overt politicisation. Hereditary uses demonic/spiritual possession to talk about the oppressive nature of the nuclear family, generational baggage, and the passage of mental illness. Get Out sets its sights on how liberal values can still perpetuate dangerous ideas about race (even fetishise said ideas) and often help to camouflage systems of discrimination, all while paying lip service to progressive values.
Another recent trend is the nature of the conflict. Movies like the Babadook and A Quiet Place are less interested in socio-political text but instead focus on themes of emotional suppression and struggle. The former deals with the dangers of depression/trauma while the latter is about love unspoken, the tribulations of child-rearing, and communication in uninhabitable situations. These broad themes are inextricable from the stories of these movies and they turn the attention squarely on inner struggle.
Us neatly packages together all of these to create a layered cinematic experience. It plays on themes both political and personal, which makes it worth rewatching multiple times. The sheer density of how much Peele is able to get across is astounding, but the film never wavers from the main focal point: class. It has a clear vision of how to articulate the unseen violence of class struggle and social mobility. Us externalises the self and emotional suppression as literal doppelgängers.
Class Struggle & Inverting the Survival Narrative
The protagonists are middle-class while their counterparts (the “Tethered”) live underground and are now taking to the streets to kill those they believe—by their very existence—deprived them of better lives. The movie is not subtle about its jabs at the contradictions inherent to the “American dream” but it assembles some effective visual symbols to accompany these sharp polemics.
In terms of setting, horror movies often like to take the suburbs and disturb their innate domesticity. Recreating the comfort most people take for granted and ripping it apart has proven a potent formula for slasher films, and while Us does dabble in that sub-genre it also takes sharp detours into other territories using this familiar backdrop. The houses in the movie are pristine, a sure sign that broken glass, blood, and guts are on their way.
Slashers and invasion narratives often position the antagonists as disturbing the natural order. Us appears to be playing into this until the third act, where it positions normality as a twisted perversion built on the suffering of others. The Tethered come from the underground, with its claustrophobic hallways, classrooms and prison-esque settings. The only known entrance tucked behind a hall of mirrors, a place of manifest illusions. The only way out of this subterranean ghetto is a single, downward escalator, in itself an apt metaphor for the fleeting chances of upward social mobility in America.
The Tethered were not given the opportunities that their surface-dwelling clones had, so their vocabulary and expression is limited to the animalistic. They spend their days dreaming of and mimicking the surface-dwellers but don’t have the material conditions to match their counterpart’s relative affluence. Their T-shirts are faded, much like hand-me-downs, and they eat raw rabbit meat.
As the predictable yet necessary third act twist makes clear, Adelaide’s other self (Red) is the only one that can speak because she was originally from the surface and was forced to take her twin’s place, damning her to an under-privileged life. She organises them and causes a violent rebellion so they can demand to be taken seriously. She says it in no uncertain terms: “We are Americans”.
The idea of the under-class as not just oppressed but also suppressed and ignored in the psyche of the culture’s collective consciousness is a powerful message. It works on the macro-level of socio-political metaphor and also on the micro-level of personal psychology.
Whether intentional or not, the movie has so much fodder for a Jungian lens of analysis you’d think Peele intended it to be a Shin Megami Tensei game. The Tethered call themselves shadows, Jung’s term for hidden parts of the psyche. Similarly, the use of masks mimics the idea of the personas we embody, while the whole plot is about coming to terms with this illusive other that dwells in hidden worlds. Both the external and internal selves play at all forms of pretence and imitation.
This mimickry plays a crucial role in how each side expresses its individuality. Adelaide learns to express herself with the support and material conditions provided by her parents and lifestyle, while her twin can only ever copy those things poorly. Their stunted speech comes from the lack of socialisation they were privy to, reducing their ability to express their discontent.
They display similar abilities as well, with Adelaide being an adept dancer and Zora being a fast runner, but these personal qualities are turned deadly in the hands of their underground counterparts. What for one side is the domain of self-expression becomes a tool for survival and domination for their twin. The repressed and suppressed becomes deadly in the hands of the shadow self.
Malthusian Ethics & the American Dream
Fire is another motif in the film’s arsenal. Adelaide’s son (Jason), plays with fire while his twin has burns all over his face. They both wear masks, one to hide his disfigured face and the other to play make-believe at being a monster. Matches, lighters, and fireplaces all make appearances in the film frequently; setting things ablaze is central to the film.
The film lays this out under no uncertain terms when we see a homeless man, the first victim of his Tethered, holding a sign reading Jeremiah 11:11. The passage goes as follows: “Therefore this is what the LORD says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.'”
The duality of the title is also central to the message of the film. Calling the movie Us reminds audiences that not only are we our own worst enemies (as the doppelgängers suggest), but the US isn’t doing any favors for the lower classes, either. The setting, the colour scheme, and American history play a pivotal role in building this world. The contradictions of the American dream and the ‘dog eat dog’ nature of the country’s reality are at the heart of the story. The familiar contradiction goes as follows: America is where anyone can make it, but there have to be winners and losers for the game to work. You’re encouraged to follow your dreams, but there’s only so much to go around because the system was designed that way.
The rabbits can also be seen as a metaphor for out of control reproduction. The Malthusian ethics with which society often operates leaves people with little choice but to turn on each other. They eat the surplus and each other. Of course, most of the characters are portrayed as being unaware of this underground system except for Adelaide.
As any plot twist should, the ending puts a lot of the actions of the protagonist in a different light. In knowing the twist at the end, we can’t say for sure whether the actions Adelaide undertakes are selfish or not. Was she protecting Jason or stopping him from associating with her former brethren? Is she holding back a meaningful resolution to their suffering by maintaining her silence?
We may get an answer to this question in the form of Adelaide’s choice of weapon. As mentioned earlier, fire is a major theme, both in its capacity for destruction and its literary associations with change, rebellion, and revolution. After all, what’s a more potent symbol of disobedience than a molotov cocktail? While Jason’s Tethered likes to set things ablaze, Adelaide has a different personality quirk. One of the main weapons she uses throughout, right up to the end, is a fire iron: a tool for controlling fire. Both Jasons have destructive urges but only one has a mother that discourages it, covertly teaching him not to upset the applecart.
In the closing moments of Us, when Adelaide is revealed to have been one of the underground dwellers, only Jason knows the truth. As the movie ends, he glares at her with a fresh perspective and terror in his eyes as he puts on his mask. In that final glance, he articulates the crux of the movie: “how can you live with yourself knowing that you turned your back on so many?”.