I’d like to say a few things about writer/director Jordan Peele’s latest movie, “Us”, an ambitious, scary followup to 2017’s brilliant “Get Out”, but I cannot (and will not) reveal the ending. All I can say is that the ending will change your perception of everything that precedes it. And you won’t read that ending in the following text, either. It’s that good, and worth hiding for as long as possible.
The era of MTV and “Hands Across America.” Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is briefly separated from her distracted parents at the boardwalk along the beaches of Santa Cruz during an unexpectedly stormy summer night. She walks into a funhouse which leads her into a nightmarish hall of mirrors, where she meets her actual, flesh and blood doppelgänger. A few months after the incident, Adelaide seems to be rendered mute by the trauma. Her parents are devastated.
Cut to the present.
The adult Adelaide Wilson (an Oscar-worthy Lupita Nyong’o) is now a well-to-do mother of two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) with her slightly-schlubbish but lovable husband, Gabe (Winston Duke). Her family is vacationing near the beaches of Santa Cruz (again) with equally wealthy friends Kitty and Josh Tyler (“Handmaid’s Tale” veteran Elisabeth Moss, and Tim Heidecker), along with their identical twin teenage daughters.
Adelaide sees minor coincidences beginning to pile up. She also seems uneasy about being so close to the site of her childhood trauma. With Gabe’s reassurances, Adelaide agrees to make the best of it. The family spends the day at the beach with the Tylers, and go back to their summer house for the evening.
Later that night, the Wilson family is awakened by noises outside. The power goes out. Jason looks out the window and sees that there is a family in uniform red jumpsuits with sandals standing silhouetted in their driveway. The family is unresponsive to Gabe’s commands, and even to his threats.
A baseball bat-wielding Gabe goes outside to confront them, but is violently assaulted in a struggle with the father of the family as the intruders successfully break into the beach house and hold the Wilsons hostage. Once inside, the masked boy of the ‘family’ lights a fire in the fireplace…
… and the light of the fire reveals the ‘intruders’ to be identical doppelgängers of the Wilsons, though they have different names (mother Red, father Abraham, daughter Umbrae & son Pluto). Save for a raspy-voiced Red, the rest of the doppelgänger family are only able to communicate in guttural grunts and noises. Red refers to their kind as ‘the tethered.’ After many threats and assaults exchanged with their doppelgängers, the Wilsons manage to break away and escape.
The Wilsons eventually reunite at the Tyler’s vacation home, only to find that the entire Tyler family has been slaughtered by their own doppelgängers, whom the Wilsons have to fight off as well. With emergency services overrun, they turn on a TV to see the entire city in the grip of a violent revolution, with other red jumpsuit-wearing tethered (armed with scissors) killing off their lookalikes everywhere. The tethered lived deep beneath the United States in abandoned underground tunnels/shafts/mines/etc. where they are forced to live like animals, while their counterparts are free to “live in the sun” above ground. Now the tethered are free, and have made their way to the surface.
Eventually, the Wilsons are forced to confront “themselves” and it is not pretty. The violence, will not exceedingly graphic by modern horror movie standards, is still quite visceral, mainly because we are so deeply invested in the characters. More shocks are in store, as the purpose of the tethered appearance is ultimately revealed…
As promised, I won’t reveal the final outcome, only to reiterate that it changes one’s entire perception of everything previously seen in the film. To simply spill the beans here would be as criminal as saying “Vader is really Luke’s dad” or “Norman Bates is pretending to be his dead mother” (oops…).
Huddled masses, yearning to be free.
As with “Get Out” writer/director Peele delivers what can be superficially enjoyed as a thriller (and many in the theater today responded to it as such), but “Us” is really the story of a reckoning…a reckoning upon those who deny the rights (or even the existence) of ‘others’ who are as human as anyone else. “Us” makes less overt commentary on specific racism (the purview of “Get Out”) and more on socioeconomic disparity.
Under the current political leadership in the United States, the disenfranchised are more demonized than ever. We see heated rhetoric for “building a wall” between the southern border of United States and Mexico in order to keep imaginary caravans of “rapists” and “criminals” out of the country. Whether it’s walls, camps for migrant children, overflowing homeless shelters, or the movie’s own underground tunnel networks, the notion of keeping ‘others’ out of sight (and mind) also serves to hide our own shame in how we treat them.
My friend with whom I saw the movie is Indian-American, and she painfully recognized the tethered as metaphors for India’s own “undesirables”; a despised caste seen to wealthier Indian society as so low that they are virtually invisible. Audiences worldwide will no doubt recognize the tethered as any of the unjustly marginalized within their own cultures.
Making the tethered exact physical doppelgängers drives home the point that those people whom we criminalize, marginalize and otherwise abuse to maintain our relatively high standards of living truly are us in every way that matters. The point is also made that if we continue to ignore or dismiss those on lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, there will be a price to pay sooner or later. Human history teaches us this lesson repeatedly, but each generation seems to willfully ignore it anew.
Well done, Jordan Peele.
Jordan Peele’s sophomore directorial effort is every bit as memorable as his first, with Oscar-caliber performances, first-rate scares and political/social food for thought that gives this thriller a depth far deeper than any ‘sunken place.’
Peele’s involvement with the new CBS-All Access version of “The Twilight Zone” (debuting next month in April) has me very excited to see how his unique vision will re-interpret Rod Serling’s legendary TV series. Serling was also a strong voice for social justice in many of his stories, so Peele is a natural fit to continue that legacy. I’m guessing that Peele will be as adept at reworking a classic as he seems to be at making all-new ones.