Us Review – ‘We Are Americans’ References, Symbols & Maybe an Explanation?
So, I finally made it to the cinema to see Jordan Peele’s Sophomore film Us. We all know that Get Out set one hell of a bar, especially as his directorial debut, but the world has embraced Jordan Peele into his rightful place as horror aficionado and legend in the community. He’s fresh, exciting and truly loves the genre, which will always endear you to this creepy cohort we are all proud to be part of.
Us begins in 1986 as a young Adelaide and her parents wander the boardwalk of Santa Cruz. As her drunken father blindly slams at the same spot on a whack-a-mole machine little Adelaide wanders away onto the beach with her toffee apple in hand and the sky full of lightning. Drawn by the bright lights, she enters a hall of mirrors and has to blindly scramble for the exit when the power goes out. She is surrounded by reflections, but one is not facing the correct way.
We cut to wide spreading mountainous scenery, shot in The Shining style, and introduced to a modern day Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children superstar athlete Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Wolfman mask wearing Jason (Evan Alex) heading to their beachside holiday property. The Wilson’s spend a day at the beach with family friends Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), her husband Josh (Tim Heidecker) and their twin girls (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). The beach brings back traumatic memories for Adelaide and when Jason wanders off her reaction is palpable as she frantically roams the beach screaming his name (very Jaws). Upon return to the house Adelaide begins to explain to Gabe where her fear came from, Gabe however is a little bit more interested in the ‘magic’ that can be made in the bedroom. (Side note, this was my one bathroom break in the film and as I walked back in Gabe was laid legs akimbo in a low angle crotch shot…walking past that screen I really did not know where to put my eyes…). Then the horror begins with Jason uttering the words ‘There’s a family on our drive’. Enter the doppelgängers and a home invasion terror that becomes so much more.
Aside from being a stunningly visual and deeply unnerving film, Us has also become a major talking point in the film community. Leaving the cinema me and my partner spent the entire journey home, and some subsequent hours afterwards, discussing and researching what it was all about. We may be wrong, we may be overreaching but it was fun to discuss and I just want to keep the conversation going. I apologise for what may just be a free-form conscious thought post but it seems structure and layout just cannot do this film justice.
Warning – Spoilers Ahead!
References & Symbolism
This is probably not a conclusive list but it’s a couple of the things that I noticed or had a thought on. Peele is a man of much intertextuality and a clear lover of the horror genre who sprinkles Easter eggs throughout his film. Here’s a few.
As the film begins we can see a television cabinet with a select few video on the shelves. There were two I noticed, C.H.U.D & The Goonies. Both films deal with dangers that lurk underground, a nice foreshadowing of the events to come in Us. Alongside this there seems to be visual similarities to Black Swan during the dance battle scene between Adelaide and Red. It references the duality of a person and the idea of one soul mastering the two sides of the swan.
Peele has discussed in interviews the numerous films that influenced him and the collective film list him and the cast watched before filming Us. The Shining was one of those films and its influence can clearly be seen in the opening shots of the journey, but it can also be seen in Kitty and Josh’s twin daughters Becca and Lindsey. After being murdered by their doppelgängers their bodies are discovered in homage to the positioning of the twins in The Shining. Clearly the multiple reading and psychological themes can be applied to both films.
Beyond these there a few references to other horror films that show appreciation for the genre. It is mentioned there is some filming happening at the pier, referencing The Lost Boys. Jason as a character name could be referencing Jason from Friday the 13th especially as he also wears a mask. Jason’s doppelgänger Pluto has a burned face, just like Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street and Jason also wears a Jaws t-shirt.
Of course there’s the t-shirt that Adelaide’s father wins for her as well which is from Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video. This is later referenced in the clothing of the ‘Tethered’ with the single glove and red jumpsuits, linking to the last things Red remembered from her life above ground. Lastly, there is a little wink and nod to Get Out when Jason is eating dry Fruit Loops with a glass of milk on the side…sneaky.
There are a lot of different recurring symbols in Us that link to mirroring. Of course the film opening involves a house of mirrors but it continues past that. As Adelaide walks to the house of mirrors she passes a man holding a cardboard sign reading ‘Jeremiah: 11.11’, the particular biblical quote is “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them”. An ominous sentence and a number that is repeated throughout the film included the score of the baseball game that Gabe is watching and the time on the digital clock in Jason’s room when Adelaide goes to speak to him. Also there is a creative aerial shot of the family on the beach which casts their shadows as the main feature of the shot, creating the image of 11:11.
Another use of reflective symbolism is the jumper Zora wears reads THO, which are mirror letters themselves, and means rabbit in Vietnamese. The film uses rabbits as symbolism quite frequently, including the title sequence of numerous caged rabbits. They could link to experimentation, such as that done on the ‘Tethered’, or the ideas of following the white rabbit down into wonderland where everything is just a little bit off.
Symmetry is also clear in the weapons used by the ‘Tethered’. The fact that they use scissors, two identical pieces that only function when they are brought together. Despite being a symbol of functioning together they are also used to separate things, shown in the film when Red cuts up the paper people cut-outs.
Speaking of the cut-out paper family, that’s another use of symbolism with the imagery of Hands Across America. The charity event is another thing that the real Adelaide (who becomes known as Red) remembers from the above ground world that she uses to inspire her escape. The logo for the event is red silhouettes that are holding hands, shown in the paper cut out people and the line the red boiler suit wearing ‘Tethered’ are creating on the surface. There is also a little reference on the back of the Wilson’s car, a family decal of mother, father, daughter and son all holding hands together, in the exact same order that the ‘Tethered’ appear on the drive of the family holiday home.
Characters & Performances
This of course deserves its own section. Just like Hereditary last year caused screams for Toni Collette to receive an Oscar the rally cry has already begun for Lupita Nyong’o to be recognised for her amazing duel performance.
The entire cast do an amazing job of taking on their multiple roles. Just like the script each actor balances the complexities of humour and terror. Nyong’o portrays both Adelaide and Red beautifully, her croaky voice and fairy tale story of a women forced to mirror someone else’s life are an amazing way to introduce her doppelgänger. The battles between the two of them, both above and below ground, are choreographed immaculately and the mild differences in gesture between the two keep them just close enough to give hints to the humanity of Red and the savagery of Adelaide. They share a soul and I believe that theirs is split a lot more evenly than the rest of the ‘Tethered’.
The rest of the Wilson family are incredible throughout. Gabriel and Adelaide are the sweetest couple and managed to feel realistic but also loveable enough to care about when they are in danger. As for the children, both Zora and Jason are great in their young fear and their great bravery simultaneously. As a family they are the backbone of the film, from the embarrassing dabbing dad to the family kill count competition, they keep the film human.
As for their ‘Tethered’ each represents something different. Abraham is the aggressive, grunting and primal stereotype often landed upon large men like Gabriel, who himself could not be further away from that. Zora is a smart young woman, she hints at what is happening underground in the opening of the film, claiming that the government is controlling the people with fluoride in the water. Correct premise, wrong method. Her ‘Tethered’ Umbrae is truly terrifying, her dark smile manages to still be plastered on her face even as she dies. Jason is a young boy going through some of the more awkward moments in life, something he often deals with by pulling his mask down. He hides behind a strong animal while his doppelgänger hides behind a ‘human’ mask yet acts like an animal. They seem to be more connected than any of the others which may be due to their young age or the pre-pubescent need to fit in, just an idea.
Lastly we have the Tyler’s, particularly Kitty and Josh. They are the show-off couple who appreciate appearance over substance with their glass sided extravagant holiday house, plastic surgery and a handsome yacht. Josh’s doppelgänger Tex is pure hilarity, especially with his ‘too slow’ handshake and has a real ‘laddish’ vibe to him. Plus, best death of the film. Show me the guts! Kitty’s doppelgänger is Dahlia and the performance that she puts on when Tex is killed is simply terrifying. She sits herself at the vanity table and begins to indulge in things she has been denied underground, makeup and a little bit of DIY plastic surgery, a possible reference to the Black Dahlia murder. Moss’s performance is outstanding and they are the perfect antithesis for the Wilson’s.
Meanings & Ideas
So here are my theories and thoughts on what this intense and symbolic film just might mean.
I admit I fell victim to assuming this was about race relations in America, similar in theme to Get Out. This is not treading the same territory; this is something new, something very different.
Throughout Us hints are dropped about Adelaide and her identity. My partner definitely caught on to this, I however was blissfully ignorant until the third act. There are a few careful lines of dialogue that give us just enough suspicion. “I have a hard time just talking” & “I don’t feel like myself” are lines used very early into the film that make me definitely want to rewatch this film. As she explains her ‘origin’ story she is shot completely through reflection demonstrating the thin veil between her and her other side.
When the Wilson’s are confronted by their doppelgängers Gabe asks “Who are you people?” and they reply with “We’re Americans.” There’s an issue of American identity here and what it means to be American. My thoughts went to immigration and to how people classify themselves as Americans. Do you need to be born there and have five generations of American lineage? Or is it that once you class yourself as a resident of USA you become an American? There is an issue of identity and how we classify ourselves woven throughout the film.
This idea of culture being overridden and the change in how America has appropriated different elements of others cultures for themselves is interesting in Us. An example of this being shown is in the switch between the names of the house of mirrors. In the 80’s it is called the “Shaman’s Vision Quest Forest” with an image linking to Native American culture. There has been a lot of issues around the segregation and removal of rights/lands from Native Americans which could link to the lack of rights and freedom of the ‘Tethered’. The shift in culture and change in the appropriations of other cultures is acknowledged in the fact that upon return to the Santa Cruz beach the house of mirrors is renamed “Merlin’s Forest”, a lot less racially motivated.
Beyond this is an issue with the ‘American Dream’ and the idea of people always wanting what someone else has, coveting that which we see as above ours. This is demonstrated through the ‘Tethered’ representing the American fear of the rise of the underclass trying to stake claim to things that are ‘earned’ by the upper classes.
As a Brit there may be some elements that haven’t quite found me like they would an American audience. However, the fact that even the title has American connotations, Us = United States, makes me understand this as a story of American fear of the ‘other’. Peele’s commentary on how the ‘other’ is just like us, exactly like us, is interesting.
Politically there is an idea that the populace are controlled by the government through keeping the underclasses down to make anyone above them feel that they have earned that role and should continue to strive for more. A capitalist sentiment. To show them as being the ‘same’ as everyone else proves that they are not different, ‘other’ or a problem, they are just like everyone else but in different circumstances. The use of the colour red and the human wall also link to certain political events happening in America since the last election.
By linking to Hands Across America Peele is also commenting on the empty gestures that are often put forward to help the ‘lesser’. It was a failed attempt to raise money and awareness that become more of a stunt than an actual helpful event. Could this be insinuating that politicians like to be seen to advocate change but not really want the change as they can control everything well enough now? That’s a depressing thought, but then again, I could be talking shit, who knows? We’re all just here for the conscious thought ride-along anyway right?
Of course we’re always going to compare Us to Get Out and I think that may be doing it a little bit of damage. Us is much more complex and tackle a lot more ideas. It’s interpretive and moving with numerous facets. It’s not as concise in its message as Get Out and that makes it a little harder to watch and understand, but also makes it into a reflexive film that can mean anything to anyone. Well done for that Mr Peele.
With Twilight Zone premiering and Candyman in the wings it’s clear that Peele has found his home in horror and has no intention of letting any pesky doppelgänger home invaders or cults of upper class white people scare him out of that home. Us is a horror film packed with tension, aesthetic beauty and big ideas, but it is HORROR. The man himself says so.