If Yorgos Lanthimos thought he was the only one that could do creepy and cryptic symbolism with rabbits, boy, was he wrong. Jordan Peele doesn’t shy away from combining horror with happiness; if the squirmish discomfort caused by seemingly cute rabbits wasn’t enough, wait until you see someone bludgeoned to death to the tune of The Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Jarring doesn’t even cover it.
In 1986, eight-year-old Adelaide Wilson watches a TV commercial for the Hands Across America campaign, a (real life) charity and publicity event that aimed for people to hold hands in a human chain across the United States, tethered together. Soon after, Adelaide enters a fairground mirror ride on Santa Cruz beach, where she encounters a girl who looks exactly like her. In the present day, Adelaide returns to the beach with her family, only to find that their doppelgangers, armed with gold scissors, are trying to hunt them down. This is an incredibly simplified version of events, and Peele’s ambitious narrative takes many pit-stops along the way into the mad and the macabre. Above all, though, Us is deeply saturated in symbolism – symbolism that for some could be disruptive, but which worked for me. I could spend pages analysing each character’s name and each shot Media Studies-style, but I’ll leave that to the Youtube mansplainers.
The Wilson family’s terrifying doppelgangers are called The Tethered, the result of a social experiment gone wrong and who are confined to live in the U.S’s underground, devoid of happiness and forced to cruelly mimic the actions of their above-ground counterparts, unable to speak and to enjoy life. They soon exact a plan to wreak revenge on the living, led by Adelaide’s Tethered counterpart, Red. The minute Red opens her mouth and begins to speak in a terrifying, distorted rasp, I had goosebumps of fear. Lupita Nyong’o’s grasp and mastery of the role was grippingly played out, with her character’s final, chilling twist executed with nuance and shock that turned the entire narrative on its head. When asked who she was, Red simply responds: “We are Americans.” The film’s title, Us, or rather U.S, is explained in one deft utterance.
The film doesn’t scrimp on symbolism, and the film probably requires more than one watch to fully notice every clever inclusion, from Zora’s subtle rabbit t-shirt foreshadowing to the relevance of Jeremiah 11:11 which goes: behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape. Perhaps better to unpick and analyse rather than consume as a piece of entertainment, Us seems like the scarier, slicker older brother to Get Out, yet manages to capture a concrete atmosphere of fear and discomfort more than its predecessor, a film that was critically acclaimed yet fell a little flat for me when released in 2017. It’s strange that I far preferred Us despite not being a fan of horror – perhaps indicative that Us is not reliant on being scary but rather focuses on being a deliberate and incisive attack on our psyche and inner demons.
Aesthetically pleasing and gorgeously shot, the film also enjoys a chillingly excellent soundtrack thanks to Michael Abels. Combining well-known songs like “Fuck Tha Police” and an eerie take of “I Got 5 On It” with more horror-typical screeching strings, the soundtrack played with horror-film tropes and didn’t rely on musically-enhanced jump scares to shock the audience. I like how the film does not attempt to explain everything to death, but having said that, I did feel a little lost about various important aspects, such as about how, by who, and why the Tethered were created; even just a touch of context would have been useful. Various other questions are raised and unanswered: why Jason can control his Tethered, why the Tethered had access to scissors and jumpsuits, etc. I didn’t mind this not being explained, but could see how others might find this frustrating.
It’s not until the film’s climactic ending that it seems strange how Adelaide knows that The Tethered “think like us.” It’s also made clear at the end why Red can talk whilst the other Tethered cannot. Without wanting to spoil anything, the film’s ending verged towards triteness, but Nyong’o’s prowess, coupled with just a mere exchange of looks between Adelaide and Jason, steered the narrative away from cheesiness and allowed the film to end on a nightmarish, mind-blowing conclusion.
Words by Steph Green