Jordan Peele shows the horror of Us

Jordan Peele shows the horror of Us

Still from Jordan Peele's Us.

Us is Jordan Peele’s follow-up feature to his hit horror Get Out, and although they are very different films, there is a common thread – they find and express the horror in contemporary American culture. Before I get into the nitty gritty and the spoiler talk, you should go and see this film, on the big screen if you can. Peele is a masterful storyteller, and every element of each shot builds the story beautifully. There is some lovely cinematography, and well-used lighting, not to mention the outstanding, lead by the amazingly talented Lupita Nyong’o, with an excellent supporting cast. For the first half hour we just have a hint that something strange happened at some time in the past, the tension slowly building, before we discover that things are definitely not right. But to say more would be to give too much away, so go and see it and come back for a spoiler-heavy take below.

Going deeper… with spoilers

What the hell is going on with this film? Doppelgängers is a long-time horror device. The fear of ourselves, or of others who look like us. Is it about cloning? Perhaps body snatchers? Well not really, but it certainly harks back to the former in some ways, which I’ll explain later. But really it’s neither of those. The classic horror Invasion of the Body Snatcherswas a reflection of the McCarthy hysteria that ruled the day (the original film was made in 1953), Usis very much a film of our time. 

The clue comes when the tethered family are asked “Who are you?”, and Red, Adelaide’s tethered other (both played by Lupita Nyong’o), replies “We are Americans”, with a ghoulish smile. The shadow world, the tether people, they are the ones who feel all the pain, while the world above has all the pleasure. They are a warped reflection of their other selves. They have no choices, they are tied to the choices of their above-world selves who are free to do what they like. The tethered have been waiting for this day and are going to break free. Us is a story of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of America, and cultures like it, including the one I live in. It is what happens when the gulf between rich and poor becomes so wide, you can’t even see across the chasm any more. And this is the chasm that exists between the above world and tethered people. The tethered are the people who have no choice but to take what’s left, they are America’s underclass. The by-product of the American dream, that no-one wants to see. But they are people, as Red says, they are flesh and blood just like the people above ground. They feel pain, and bleed, just like the above-ground people do. And so it is with the haves and have-nots. 

The fear behind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was really a less aware version of the same fear that runs underneath Us. The horror of the have-nots rising up and getting payback. In Us, payback consists of murdering all the haves and then realising the unfulfilled dream of the Hands Across America of the 1980s, which symbolically was supposed to unite all Americans. In reality the 1980s was the dawn of the era of neo-liberal politics, which paved the way for the sharp divides that have appeared in the US, and in other similar economies, and arguably went a long way to creating the underclasses in our societies today. The forgotten people, the ones forced to take whatever is left. In Us, while it doesn’t create the tethered people, it is in the 80s when, we discover at the very end, Adelaide is switched for Red, and it is Adelaide who leads the uprising of the tethered people. This final revelation shows us that the tethers are just like us. They are us, but us subjected to things we can’t even imagine in our comfortable middle-class lives, like the lives of the holidaying above ground people. So in the end, there is no difference between us and them. We are just as horrific as the tethered, and the tethered are just as human as sympathetic as us, because we are them, we’re the same. And that’s the underlying message and the horror of Us. We have created the horror and the division that exists in our societies. It is a by-product of the lives we lead. 

Usis a powerful film that I’ll be thinking about for a long while to come. It’s on general release in cinemas across Australia now.