Movie Review: Us (2019)
As I stood outside the SIFF Egyptian theater after the Saturday matinee, waiting for my wife and blinking in the late afternoon sun, my immediate thoughts were:
- not as scary as “Get Out”
- not as cohesive
Rabbits? Hands Across America? So much left unanswered. Apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling this. I kept seeing moviegoers scrunching their faces and beginning conversations like: “So if...?” or “So then what...?” Would’ve made a nice tableau vivant. Title: “Us.”
That night I proved myself wrong on the first point. I woke up at 1 a.m. scared witless. I don’t know if it was retroactive horror, if I’d just had a bad nightmare, or some combination, but I was suddenly terrified of doppelgangers. I saw them everywhere. I didn’t even want to look in the mirror because there was another one. To make it to my office—since I couldn’t get back to sleep—I did that thing where you keep the light on at one end of a dark hallway until you can walk down and turn the light on at the other. Then you schlep back to turn off the first. I’m 56.
Earlier, online, I’d proved myself wrong on the second point, too. At the least, questions I thought unanswered were in fact answered in Jordan Peele’s film. But the answers only led to more questions.
Apparently the doppelgangers, “the tethered,” are clones from an abandoned government project. I’d missed that 11th-hour explanation. And the rabbits are what they ate—raw rabbit—while they mimicked the actions of the surface people above.
How long ago was the project abandoned? Five years? Because the kids are like, what, 10 or 12? So are they the last of the tethered or are there more? Or is the whole thing automated now? That would explain why tethered/surface dwellers seem the exact same age. Officials aren’t getting the DNA swipe in utero or waiting for the kids to be born to clone them; it’s all natural. Red and Abraham, underground, simply mimic the movements of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke) above—including sex. They have kids the traditional way. But then would the kids be clones? And what to make of Adelaide’s above-ground kids, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex)? Since she’s “tethered,” what are they now, really?
More: Does everyone have a clone? Trump? Beyoncé? Lin-Manuel Miranda? And is it America or everywhere? If it’s a U.S. government project it’s just here, right? Which means immigrants don’t have clones. Is that why we’re so xenophobic? They are their own entities while we’re half-people—sharing sensations and movements and thoughts with creatures below us.
Is that why we feel so empty? Needy? Lost? Listless? Is that why Adelaide’s parents fight on the boardwalk in 1986 and her dad is drunk and needs to play another game of Wac-a-Mole rather than watching his girl, which is why she wanders down to the beach, and into the funhouse (“Find yourself”), where she does exactly that: She encounters Red, who (11th hour reveal), grabs her, chokes her, and takes her place in the sun.
That reveal is my favorite part of the movie, by the way. It not only turns the movie on its head but the audience, too. Because we’ve been rooting for the wrong person the entire time. The little girl lost? We actually wanted her to die. Jordan Peele must’ve chuckled to himself when he came up with that.
But of course this reveal leads to its own series of follow-ups. Did Adelaide always know she was original Red or had she repressed it? If she knew, why go back to Santa Cruz? And did Red know she was original Adelaide? If so, wouldn’t her conversation in the living room have been different? “I’m back,” etc. “Thought you could get away with it,” etc. Also, when she woke up in the underground and got unchained from the bed, why didn’t she just escape? Up the escalator and back to the funhouse? Speaking of: What lame-ass inspector is responsible for keeping that place up to code? “Yeah, sorry lady, I don’t see anything on this manifold about an escalator inside a tent.”
Another thought: Why are the tethered stronger and faster than the people above ground? Is raw rabbit meat that fulfilling? So kale is just bullshit?
Right now, most likely, some reader is growing increasingly frustrated with me: Dude, it’s a metaphor! For class issues! Don’t you get anything?
Right. But I want the metaphor to make sense outside the metaphor, too. And this thing is just ... impossible. The logistics alone boggle the mind. Makes the U.S. entry into WWII seem like a weekend camping trip.
Other favorite moments are the stuff that made me laugh. Like when Gabe, genially enough at first, confronts the silent family at the end of the driveway, then returns with a baseball bat and his “black voice.” That cracked me up. Especially when it didn’t work.
Also: “Call the police”/“Playing ‘Fuck The Police’ by NWA.” Perfect.
I still don’t get “Hands Across America.” I remember it, and I like that it was in the movie, but it doesn’t resonate. OK, so the tethered are replicating a big empty-gesture event about homelessness from 1986. And...?
What resonates is the main thing: The horror that there’s someone who looks like you, and who is crushed by life and forced to live underground and have nothing, and whom you don’t even know exists, and who wants your life. And yes, that’s a class metaphor. What's interesting is that it doesn’t exactly make you sympathetic for the literal lower classes. The opposite.
“Us” is a movie worth seeing and talking about. I liked it. But. For all those reasons above: but. And maybe too I'm just tired of another movie playing off of and exacerbating paranoia about the federal government. It’s been going on for decades and simply plays into the hands of people who proclaim the federal government “the problem," “the enemy” and “the swamp.” It leads to Reagan, the Bushes and Trump. Which is the real horror.