Movie Review: Horror/Satire – Us
Directed by Jordan Peele
Written by Jordan Peele
Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Evan Alex
I loved Get Out, the Oscar winning film debut of TV sketch comedy master Jordan Peele. With its razor-sharp satirical wit and ingenious horror movie MacGuffin, the film provided both a voice to and a parody of the fears of the modern black American male living and loving in a white dominated culture. With Us, his second film, Peele once again adopts his beloved horror movie genre as a vehicle to satirize American culture, this time targeting class, middle class values, and American indifference. But if Get Out was a finely-honed dagger plunging straight to the heart of its cultural truths, Us pokes, prods, and bruises its American demons like the blunt set of golden scissors carried by its villains without ever clearly breaking skin. It’s sufficiently creepy to satisfy fans of the horror genre, but thematically it misses its mark.
Us begins in 1986, the same year, as we are reminded in the film’s opening scene via a television commercial viewed through the eyes of a young girl, of Hands Across America, the nation-wide fund-raising event in which participants, for a $10 donation, lined up hand-in-hand across American cities to show unity for the common cause of ending hunger in America. Later that night, the girl, 9-year-old Adelaide (Madison Curry), strolls the busy carnival boardwalk of California’s Santa Cruz Beach with her parents. When her mother takes a restroom break, entrusting the child to her Whac-a-Mole distracted father, Adelaide wanders off on her own and enters one of those horror movie funhouses you instinctively know will be trouble. Once inside, she becomes lost in a hall of mirrors where she encounters a duplicate, or doppelgänger of herself, leaving her terrified and temporarily mute.
Years later, in the present, the adult Adelaide (Lupita N’yongo) reluctantly revisits the beach with her middle-class family: husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son Jason (Evan Alex). There they meet with old friends, the upper middle class Tylers, Josh and Kitty (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker). After an upsetting encounter at the beach, the Wilsons return to their summer vacation home where they’re unceremoniously visited by a family of their own doppelgängers, creepy replicas of themselves in red jumpsuits who break into their house and terrorize them. The doppelgängers, or tethers, as they’re later referred to, are mute, except for Red, Adelaide’s twin and the leader of the group, who tells a bizarre tale of how the tethers were created by the government in a failed experiment to control the citizens above. The human copies are “tethered” to their counterparts, but unlike those above, they have no souls. Abandoned by the government, they’ve been forced to survive in the untold miles of underground tunnels where they were created by eating the rabbits kept in cages by their long-gone creators.
This goofy premise sets up the same kind of uneasy mix of gleefully bizarre humor, horror, and satire we saw in Get Out. And though it’s no more ridiculous than that film’s personality transplant device, the mix of the three never quite gels because the satire is muddied by a confusing and unfocused central metaphor, and the scares, overly reliant on bloody violence, can’t carry the picture on their own.
There’s no confusion about whom the tethers represent. If the title doesn’t give it away, nor the sign on the hall of mirrors beckoning visitors to “Find Yourself,” Red leaves no doubt when one of the Wilsons asks, “Who are you people? “We’re Americans,” she croaks. Fair enough, but the logistics of the metaphor are garbled. On the one hand the tethers caricature bourgeois vulgarity and vanity – Gabe and Josh’s twins, the lumbering, Abraham and the swinging parody of hipster playboys, Tex, wail like brainless man-ogres, while the deliriously funny Kitty doppelgänger, Dahlia, applies lipstick to her bloodied face in an orgasmic, mock-glamorous delight. But the real-world decadence of the Wilsons and Tylers is never shown to any extent other than the Tyler’s contempt for each other. They don’t function as ugly Americans ripe for satire. The bad behavior is left to the tethers. The Wilsons are ineffectual and boring, but their banalities seem more like the results of a shorted script than behaviors meant to be satirized. This is fine I suppose if you look at each side of the characters as one character, symbols of the paradoxical American psyche rather than full-blooded American characters.
But contrarily, the tethers are also presented as victims, neglected souls, symbols of the underprivileged classes forced to imitate the motions of the free, above ground doppelgängers, that is, us, and made to live in the tunnels below with only raw rabbits to sustain them. The extermination of, or rather the severing of those above ground from their below-ground tethers seemingly illustrates the eruption of repressed anger building in our culture toward the more comfortable classes represented by the Wilsons and the Tylers but they’re the same people who represent our dark side. When Red says, “we’re Americans,” does she mean “We’re Americans too?” The film’s final shots reveal hundreds of tethers stretched out across the landscape in a “protest.” Is it a parody of empty protests ala Hands Across America that feign concern, do little, and are easily forgotten? Is it a warning of the revolution to come? Is it both? If the tethers are merely meant to represent marginalized Americans, why have them be doppelgängers at all? Are the tethers our dark side or are they our victims? The apparent fusing of what the replicas represent, as well as the film’s final twist, which further blurs the lines between those above and below ground, may add complexity to the metaphor, but it muddles the satire. Get Out worked because it was always clear what the fictional threats to its lead character represented. But even after two viewings I’m still scratching my head trying to sort it all out. Us is certainly thought-provoking, but it never really satisfies.
As for the issue of race, there are minor comparisons between the well-off, white Tylers and the less successful African American Wilsons who are still well-off enough to own their own vacation home. But that’s just one detail in a film that’s more about class than race. Us is not the race-baiting audience divider that the racist trolls who haunt Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes would have you believe (nor, as they claim, was the race-centered Get Out). Race is largely irrelevant here. Peele sees guilt in us all.
Horror, like humor, is relative and I admit I’m not an easy person to scare. The young audience I saw this film with seemed genuinely engaged and frightened by the movie, laughing in all the right spots and screaming on cue at each of the film’s calculated terrors, but the thrills seemed mostly generic to me – bloody without being particularly shocking and filled with leering faces more comical than frightening, the exception being the young Wright Joseph, already, at the tender age of 13, a master of the psychotic stare. I had a similar experience watching Get Out; I didn’t find it particularly frightening, but with that film, the satire seemed so clearly stated that the horror, while unsettling, seemed part of the larger joke. This disparity in perception between myself and the younger audience members is, perhaps, the difference between a cynical, late middle-aged man who prefers his metaphors clean and tight, and a less-experienced, unjaded audience that sees no point in over thinking a horror film. But after the savage, stinging wit of Get Out, Us, for me, was a let-down.