Us is a 2019 horror film directed by Jordan Peele. What Us is actually *about* seems to be a cinematic Rorschach test. Each viewer seems to away with different interpretations and readings, none truly invalid all applicable. But what are these readings all about? What do we see in Us and why do we see it?
Us is about Adelaide Wilson, the matriarch of an upper-middle class family on vacation in Santa Cruz. As a child, Adelaide saw something horrific in a hall of mirrors, another version of herself. That hall was propped up with an offensive native american caricature called “Shaman’s Vision Quest”, meant to invoke exotic mysticism. Flash-forward to the present, the caricature has been replaced by a white wizard. The structure still stands, even if its name was changed to something more “acceptable” although, even the image of a white “grand wizard” bears connotations of something sinister. A symbol of past atrocities covered up with signs of another, less instantly notable one? Although, the “grand wizard” seems still eerily relevant given the people we allowed to take positions in government.
Us is about our shadow selves. One of the foremost striking images of the film involves the Wilson’s walking across the sandy beach, their shadows the most prominent figure of the shot as we only glimpse the top of their heads, literally foreshadowing connections and movements, mirrored through environments on the grounds above the shadows. The tethered, as we come to know them, exist to mirror and follow, though they have also been dealt short straws in their existence, never allowed to see the sky and only follow the actions of their above ground counterparts, regardless of their own desires. Do the tethered and their above ground identity share a soul? Is one the true identity or are they both meant to occupy the same space, only one allowed to remain in our world.
Us is about connections to our natural states. The Wilson’s shadow selves are defeated in the four elements: water (Abraham dying on Gabe’s boat), air (Zora launching Umbrae off the car), fire (Jason walking Pluto into the flames), and earth (Adelaide suffocating Red in the tunnels). This struggle may be manufactured but even its violence underlines something tragically natural to the surrounding environments. Even in their framing, Abraham falls back into the darkness of the lake at night. Umbrae disappears into the air momentarily, found only writhing in pain from her broken body before dying. Pluto joins the erupting flames, having already spent life with his burnt face. And Red, whistling in the underground cave she called home. They returned from whence they came, but they were never allowed to belong in the first place.
Us is not directly about race like Get Out, though it’s certainly aware of racial injustice. Systemic issues in society relating to the treatment of people seen as “lesser” or “useless”, something to be cast aside when they can’t be utilized in vying for profit or power. But they’re still people. And they’re still here. Most importantly, they’re still hurting. So while it’s not strictly about the concept of racial injustice, these societal issues do not exist in a vacuum and there’s a tragic crossover in reality and in the film. Gabe is consistently trying to match his friend’s material goods. Even for a progressively dorky and sincere dad as Gabe, something primal still eggs him on to achieve success in the status of traditional masculinity. Like he’s almost not good enough until he succeeds in a similar space. The chips are always stacked against him, a relatable circumstance for any person of color.
Us is about class. The unnatural structure at the service and whims of a capitalist society, one in which divvies up people into upper, middle and lower statures. Hands Across America represents an idealized version of a solution, one where capitalist answers can solve capitalist problems. Josh sits on the couch as his wife asks him to check on the noise outside. His complacency leads to the entire family murdered within seconds. Turning a blind eye to injustice is supporting injustice. Even later as we will discover, Young Adelaide running into her Tethered in the hall of mirrors would have allowed both of them to escape. The world could have seen this atrocity. They could have shone a light on the horrors that developed an innocent group of people nobody claimed responsibility for. But Red had others plans. Why risk rebuke from a populace when she could become one of them? And so she took her chance. To her credit, Red lived her life and joined the working class above ground. There are hints this family is on the verge of upper class. Gabe is able to buy a small boat (still frowned upon), and a vacation home. These things are not commonplace for working class families. But Red (Now hiding in plain sight as Adelaide) was able to mask herself with issues rooted within our culture. Adelaide’s parents being unable to communicate, keeping a distance from their daughter as they are unable to deal with their own problems allowed Red to thrive without pause.
Us is about broken societal structures. The decrepit institutions the Tethered find themselves surrounded by do nothing to better their lives. They were designed to control mass populations. When their tethering access only works in response to the surface world, and not the other way around, the Tethered are abandoned. Left to live out an unfulfilling existence as husks, until Adelaide is dragged into the depths of their community. A savior and victim, yearning to break free and take others with her. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. So they found one in rage and collaboration.
US is about domestic terrorism. It remains a bubbling issue across our nation specifically as it pertains to radicalization, gun violence and the aforementioned structures we find ourselves surrounded by. Like Al-Qaeda, the Tethered were funded and created by the U.S. government. A group financed for the purpose of controlling a certain populace only to backfire and create our own worst enemy with the tactics and ideas we’ve taught them. They learn by watching us, and we abandoned them without ever truly assisting them. Because the people behind the tethered weren’t interested in helping anyone but themselves.
Us is about how media can inform our perception of the world. The opening image is of an old television set where a commercial for Hands Across America is shown. A young Adelaide is watching. She never saw how Hands Across America failed, as it never intended to combat poverty or the institutions that bred inequality. Of the $30 million+ that was raised, only approximately $15 million ever reached poverty support groups. In the film’s final scene, the hands of the Tethered are held across America, more successful at bringing awareness by leaving dead in their wake. And the people who created them? Most likely not among those victims. So the cycle continues, and the people directly responsible aren’t even seen. Only an off-hand remark by daughter Zora about the government putting fluoride in the water to control the populace.
We may not be directly responsible for atrocities, but by overlooking or turning a blind eye, we participate in some capacity to their unnatural persistence, ripple effects enveloping us in damnation. We’re condemned until we wake up and do something about it. We are not in the sunken place here. We’re in something far worse. We’re in America. Unless we wake up, these casual crimes and negligence will only lead us down a path from which we may never return. Things can change, let’s just hope it’s not too late to find our light at the end of the tunnel.
Us is about us, and that scares the shit out of me.