I think the perfect movie (be it from a purely artistic or coldly capitalistic perspective) is one that is crafted in a way that requires you, begs you to watch it again. Whether that be to discover what you missed the first time, or to relive your favorite moments. By that definition, Us is a perfect movie. Is it a great movie? I don’t know yet. What I can assure you of is this: Us is not, a crowd-pleaser. Certainly not to the crowd of people enticed by the promise of another film by the creator of the instant-classic Get Out.
Like a flash flood, Get Out came from nowhere, and swept the world up in an overwhelming wave of cinematic enjoyment. It was one of the all-time great theater-going experiences. I saw Get Out in theaters twice, and both times, as the credits rolled, and people streamed out of the theater, there was a buzz in the air. People couldn’t stop talking about it. However, when I saw Us with my family a few hours ago, as I walked out with my family, we all noticed the same thing: near-silence. That may seem like an indicator that Us is a bad movie, but it’s something else. I worked at a movie theater, and I’ve seen people come out of bad movies – they’re not quiet. No, this wasn’t dislike, or indifference, it was reflection. Which is rare.
Reflection is an apt response to a movie that is quite explicitly about confronting one’s self. That confrontation is not just subtext, it’s the premise of the movie. Us is (ostensibly) about a family on vacation in Santa Cruz, California that is set upon by their own reflections, when an identical (but far more unsettling) family arrives at their doorstep. That’s the story of the film as shown in the trailers, and it’s the story told onscreen for a good portion of the film’s run-time…until it becomes something else. What that something is supposed to be, or represent, or mean leads to a lot of questions, many of which don’t have immediate answers, some that threaten to tear apart the internal logic of the movie, and some you have to answer for yourself.
[Moving into spoiler territory now]
The text onscreen at the beginning of the film tells of thousand of miles of long-forgotten tunnels underneath the United States, many of which have no clear purpose. A major turning point in Us is the revelation that the family of doppelgangers attacking the Wilson family isn’t an anomaly, they are in fact, clones of the family who dwell in the aforementioned tunnels along with clones of every other American. The clones are “tethered” to their above-ground counterparts, doomed to mimic the actions of the original. If someone above ground eats a hot dog, so does their clone below (or at least they mime the act of it). The clone of Adelaide and her family is leading a revolt of “the Tethered”.
Many readings of Us will focus on the clear class critiques present in the juxtaposition of the “the Tethered” with the people on the surface. It’s a straightforward look at stratified society; it’s quite literally one group of people existing above another. This is only strengthened as we look deeper into the text. The Tethered are often seen holding hands, which isn’t just for show, but a direct reference to the “Hands Across America” campaign of 1986 that attempted to raise $50 million to combat homelessness and poverty. The campaign was largely considered a disappointment. Today, homelessness is as big an issue as it’s ever been. The people on the bottom are forgotten about, just like the Tethered.
But there are many other ways to look at Us: it’s a movie about being failed by our parents, those who were supposed to protect us; it’s a movie about the unfulfilled promises of Gen-Xers (as Jen Chaney breaks down over at Vulture); it’s a blanket look at oppression. It’s through the lens of these many different potential narratives that effect of the movie’s second big reveal becomes clear. During the final confrontation between Adelaide and her doppelganger, we learn that everything we thought we knew is a lie. The Adelaide we’ve been following and rooting for isn’t the real Adelaide – she is the clone. As an audience, we already knew that Adelaide first encountered her clone in a house of mirrors at the very same beach in Santa Cruz, way back in 1986. What we didn’t know was that person we believed to be the “real” Adelaide never left that house of mirrors.
The reveal is effective in its ability to leave the audience unsettled, but my initial response to it was confusion. If the “real” Adelaide was who we thought to be the villain, what is the movie actually trying to say? Well, precisely that: Adelaide is the villain. That’s not a particularly satisfying answer, unless you once again look at it through the lens of the different potential themes of the movie. “Red”, the clone Adelaide is overcoming her oppression, by any means necessary. If the “real” Adelaide is the villain, then Red is the hero. Red’s heroism is ugly and violent. She has to (literally) become that which she once hated in order to overcome her past. Now let’s run through those themes again:
- If the movie is a class critique, it’s a direct comment on how capitalism is designed to make you believe that the only way to overcome poverty is not to tear down the system, but to make yourself. Red even steps on the rebellion of people who were just like her in order to suit her own ends. I’m reminded of countless politicians who run on platforms of reform until they get their first taste of lobbyist money and begin supporting legislation that opposes their constituents. (Also: the Hands Across America reference becomes more than a reference, but it given deeper purpose. The Tethered demonstrate by holding hands because in 1986, when Red last lived on the surface, such a move was the most effective public demonstration going.)
- If the movie is about parenting, then it’s simple: hurt people hurt people.
- If the movie is about Generation X: it’s about how the optimism of Generation X turned to cynicism when their dreams weren’t realized (again: hurt people hurt people). Think again about the perceived failure of Hands Across America and what that would mean to a child of the 80s.
Now, as I think about the end of the movie: I have a strange admiration for Adelaide (no longer Red). It’s the same admiration I, as a poor black man have for Jay-Z or Diddy (two other black Shawns). Both came from deeply impoverished communities to reach levels of financial success no one I know will ever see. But they didn’t overcome poverty, they’re just on the other side of it. It’s still there. Marcy Projects is still hell for some. As is Harlem. It should be said that the two are noted for their philanthropy, and that they alone cannot defeat poverty in New York City. But neither will hyper-capitalism. The same goes for Red. Assuming the identity of Adelaide doesn’t change a thing about the world that required her to take such an action to overcome her status. So, when I think of Adelaide, I’m reminded of one of the final shots of the movie, as Adelaide drives the ambulance out of town. Alex, her son leers at her from the passenger seat. He knows. He considers it for a moment, and then let’s it go. He pulls the mask he wear on his head down over his face. Game recognize game. I guess we’re all hiding something.
Let’s return to the beginning. I wrote above about Get Out as an unforgettable theater-going experience. Well, so too, was Us, but for a different reason. I’ll never forget the pensive silence in the lobby of the AMC as we all walked out of the IMAX auditorium a little shaken up. Or sitting in my aunt’s living room an hour later, a group of us discussing the movie together, trying to process what we saw. But mostly, I won’t forget walking home alone in the dark later that night, still thinking about what I saw, and wondering what I would do if on my journey I encountered myself.
What is Us? A lot to think about.
- This thing is shot and directed so well. Way to level-up.
- Outstanding performances all around, but Lupita Nyong’o, in particular, is hitting home runs.
- I mentioned above questions that threaten to tear apart the internal logic of the movie. Some of those are: how were clones supposed to help the government control the people? What do the clones do when people travel out of the country, or just move to another town? What makes the clones stop mimicking their original? What are they gonna do when they stop holding hands? Why were they given scissors? Why were they given scissors and then abandoned? Where can I get some nice gold scissors like that? However, here’s the thing: none of these questions really matter (except the last one. I want those scissors!).Some of it might not hold up to scrutiny, but you’re either buying into the premise of the movie or you aren’t. Knowing what the government’s plan was or what my clone does when I take a flight to Texas doesn’t alter anything about the story itself, it’s just a question about the mythology. Why are there government-created clones living in the tunnels of America? Because Jordan Peele wanted to make a movie about that. And I’m glad he did.