Blockbuster horror film Us does more than comment on our culture, it uses it to be more effective.
*Endless Spoilers Ahead*
It is a common practice on this site to post the trailer for the film we’re discussing. It seems like the most logical thing to do as media these days is essentially one big machine. We mostly work in words, but visuals are so easily accessed that it would be silly not to integrate them into our work. Not to mention, the owners of this footage want us to share. Media is all tied together, for better or for worse.
That’s, in part, what Us is all about.
Let me jump back a second. Another reason to post this trailer is how much it helps the film get under your skin. It distracts you from the details. In a sense, the trailer gives away too much. An eagle-eyed viewer would notice the doppelgangers expand past the family and might even catch the big twist.
But, most people don’t.
The trailer focuses largely on Lupita Nyong’o’s genius performances as Adelaide and Red. It acts as a distraction from the other images and leaves the audience asking just what the hell is going on in front of them. It stops them from processing what they’re seeing. I watched the trailer dozens of times and was still surprised when the red clad versions of the Tylers showed up to wreak havoc. In fact, I think it is the most effective moment in the film, letting the audience know that this isn’t just some sort of punishment for the Wilsons. That said, it is only as effective because of what has come before it.
A Mirror on Our World
Get Out was a controlled film where one could conceivably get within inches of the reveal by watching carefully. This stuck in audiences heads as Us hit theaters. Its mysterious promotional campaign only encouraged their analysis. Peele throws a ton of information and imagery into the earliest moments of the film. While all of it is relevant to the plot, it also serves as a distraction. The most honest moment comes before everything else, as we are bluntly told that this is a film about a tunnel system under the United States. The reveal of the secret experiment living beneath our feet is such a large, fantastic idea that all of the clues don’t help us predict the Wilsons’ or the world’s fate. Peele uses the audiences assumptions against them and, not unlike our protagonists, these distractions ensure we’re left with a world in flames.
Yes, there is commentary on politics, religion, class war and race. Us confronts the audience with the uncomfortable truth that for every advantage that one has, someone else likely finds a disadvantage. It hammers home that justice for one may seem oppression for another. All of our ethics and morals can be used for us and against us. Even when you think you’re the hero, you just might be the villain. The world’s problems are not singular, they are a web of elements. There is no simple answer to our problems because our problems have a synergistic effect. In Us, all of these pieces come together to destroy…well, us.
“Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, even Cronenberg’s the Fly — you are meant to be terrified of these things, but also to relate to them on some level.” – Jordan Peele to the Los Angeles Times, 2019
The other side of Us is a bit more fun. If Jordan Peele exemplified an understanding of horror in Get Out, he exhibits a sheer, giddy love for it in Us. In many respects, the eventually revealed plot of the film resembles a schlocky Eighties horror romp. The underground society’s conspiracy is intentionally over the top and there are endless questions to be answered. We don’t even find out what organization was attempting to pull the strings or how far they’ve gotten in the past. All of this is obscured by the audience’s attempt to place a complex logic behind it. The science-monster reveal is rabbit punch of a plot point and yet another effective manipulation of the audience’s expectations. Thus, it restores the shock that decades of horror films haven’t been able to. Peele’s villains ARE monsters but, as he’s pointed out himself, most monsters don’t see themselves that way. When Red is finally revealed to be the “original” Adelaide, it grounds her motivations. She’s no longer a science experiment gone wrong, but a person trying to restore balance. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with her methods but it does encourage the audience to wonder what evils are being committed under their nose and in their name.
Us is not a perfect film. Some of the jokes fall a little flat and its vast array of elements get a bit unbalanced. However, it does recover in the end and I can’t help but think it is Peele going full throttle, trying to create both a tribute to the genre and something to intrigue new audiences. The wheel getting a little shaky is fine because we do make it home.
Just not to a home we necessarily want to live in.