“When I decided to write this movie I was stricken by the fact that we’re in a time where we fear The Other – whether it’s the mysterious invader we think is going to come and kill us or take our jobs, or the faction we don’t live near that voted a different way than us. We’re all about pointing the finger. I wanted to suggest maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil is us.” – Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele’s new horror film Us, the eagerly awaited follow-up to his Oscar-winning horror debut Get Out (2017), documents the terror of a terrified mother, Adelaide (played by Lupita Nyong’o), as she fights to protect her family from an uncanny band of doppelgänger home invaders. The film opens with a series of haunting quotes, one of which claims that the whole of North America is infested with a network of subterranean tunnels, directly mirroring the above-ground world. From the outset, then, Peele makes it clear that the domestic horror promised in the trailers for Us will give way to something much more expansive, a nation-wide catastrophe. Nevertheless, the cinematic gaze focuses almost explicitly on the Wilson family, for reasons that become clear in a final twist in the closing minutes of the film.
The violence and uncanniness of Us takes place not only on a national geographic scale, but it also spans decades. The film opens to a young Adelaide wandering off from her parents at a beachside fair in 1986. As she walks down to the seafront, she passes what appears to be a homeless man carrying a cardboard sign with the words ‘Jeremiah 11:11’ etched in red. The Bible verse reads, ‘Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’ Adelaide’s experience on the beach haunts her to the present day: she is now a mother, driving out with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), her youngest Jason (Evan Alex) and her teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright-Joseph) to a holiday home near the sea. Adelaide reluctantly agrees to go with her family to the very same beach from her childhood trauma, where they meet their friends Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their bratty children.
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Something happens to Jason at the beach and he wanders off as his mother did thirty years ago only to come upon the same homeless man we recognize from Adelaide’s childhood stood on the beach, blood dripping from his hand. It’s a disturbing image, one of many haunting tableaus interspersed through the film’s aggressive pace and frantic violence. Us is characterized by a staccato, stop-and-start fluctuation between uncanny stillness and frenzied motion, leaving the audience in a state of constant alertness as the Wilson family fight for their lives and slowly uncover the destructive impact of their strange and dangerous doubles. Referred to as ‘the Tethered,’ these strange figures, dressed in red and seemingly incapable of speech, work together in their ceaseless mission to end the lives of their ‘human’ counterparts. Yet despite all the tension and violence, Peele’s trademark humour is even more present in Us than Get Out: the film’s comedic moments are not simply light relief from the violence, in fact some of the film’s funniest moments take place during its most violent scenes. Like Get Out, Peele’s comedy is always double-edged, always slightly uneasy in its refusal to disentangle itself from the horror of Us.
The title of the film is deliberately misleading: it sets up a kind of binary opposition between Us and Them that is violated again and again over the course of Us’ narrative trajectory. Us highlights the violent repercussions of the political, cultural and racial divides currently in operation in contemporary American society at the same time as refusing the ‘Us/Them’ split. Everyone is entangled in this mess, this violence – nobody escapes. And yet within this bloody mess of doubled identities and multiplying corpses, it becomes impossible to discern good from evil, hero from villain, victim from monster. Peele masterfully subverts audience expectations of the home-invasion horror genre, rejecting the binarised gender and racial politics of earlier films like John Carpenter’s Halloween in favour of a harrowing exploration of the middle-ground, of what happens when American citizens realise there is no them, only us.
Rhys is an interdisciplinary PhD candidate researching the politics of contemporary horror. Find him on Twitter: @rhystevenjones.