[This story contains spoilers for Jordan Peele's Us]
The following is a conversation about Us — the new Jordan Peele-directed horror movie — between Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. Us often feels like a cross between a home invasion thriller and a Night of the Living Dead-style zombie movie. Set in Santa Cruz, Us follows happily married couple Adelaide and Gabe Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o and Winston Duke) and their two children, Jason and Zora (Evan Alex and Shahadi Wright Joseph), as they are stalked and attacked by The Tethered, a mysterious group of jumpsuit-clad doppelgangers. Since this article is about the meaning and conclusion of Us, we must repeat the above warning: there are spoilers ahead.
Simon Abrams (AKA: Junkyard John Saxon): What's Us all about, Boone? That's the question of the day, one that I'm half-eager and half-reluctant to answer. It's a good question, one that Time's Stephanie Zacharek eloquently poses in her mixed review. Her piece's conclusion is a good entry point for our own conversation:
How, in the end, are we supposed to feel about these shadow people, for so long deprived of basic human rights—including daylight—that they have become murderous clones? Sometimes great movies are ambiguous, but ambiguity resulting from unclear thinking makes nothing great. It’s one thing for a movie to humble you by leaving you unsure about yourself and your place in the world; it’s another for it to leave you wondering what, exactly, a filmmaker is trying to use his formidable verbal and visual vocabulary to say.
That's well said, even though I disagree with Stephanie's conclusion. The movie's thematic ambiguity is, as Stephanie argues, more feature than bug. So I can't help but agree with the four-star review that RogerEbert.com's Monica Castillo filed from SXSW, where she writes that "Part of the appeal of Us is how you interpret what all of this information and images mean. No doubt the movie will give audiences plenty to mull over long after the credits."
You can find a lot of Big Ideas within Peele's mood board of pop culture references, starting with his prefatory references to the 1986 "Hands Across America" charity initiative as well as horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street and The Lost Boys. Peele has also given some great hints as to how we should read Us in recent interviews. He tells Vanity Fair's Nicole Sperling about the mix of optimism and terror that he associates with his movie's '80s pop culture references. And he picks apart some of his movie's less obvious allusions with Uproxx's Mike Ryan. Peele also says something that, I think, is pretty revealing to SyFyWire's Christian Long: "A horror movie is only as scary as it feels real and grounded[...]That's why I like horror imagery as everyday objects and places. You feel like, 'I could be there; I go to the beach.' There's a relatability to that."
With all that said: how did you process Us? I get the sense that you, like me, were immediately struck by Peele as storyteller and only then by Peele as social commentator. But you tell me!
Steven Boone (AKA: Brandon Quintin Adams Mega-Fan):
Like Zacharek, I appreciate Peele's visual storytelling chops and clever dialogue, but found his ambitious leap into doppelganger psychology, political allegory and blunt symbolism too cut-and-dried. For all its third-act Shyamalan-shuffling, Us feels like an arthouse horror for the "literally"/"[Movie X] Explained" generation. It tramples the line between magic realism and the sketch comedy version of the same type that Get Out averted with grace. Maybe I have higher expectations of Peele than I do of his role models: Serling, Romero, Carpenter and Craven, each of whom are legendary more for their power than their subtlety. But with Get Out, Peele seemed to be cruising into uncharted territory with the steady, ominous glide of a ghost ship. That film's success has furnished this film's larger canvas and freer rein, but there's a tight-assed A-student quality to its rhythms worthy of its Buppie protagonists, who struggle to stay on beat with "I Got Five On It."
But as an expansion on the theme of Black People's Daily Nightmare of Awkward Assimilation and the myth of national unity, I took Us as a fascinating essay — which is what many just-worth-seeing films are in this era. (Last year's bumper crop of How America Works Essay Films Posing As Narratives included BlacKkKlansman, The Old Man and the Gun, If Beale Street Could Talk — the superior essay-poem — and You Were Never Really Here.)
What I want to know is: what do you, who are as encyclopedic a scholar of Reagan-era horror as Peele, make of Us as a work of horror fiction? What does its intricate web of homage, allegory and subversion say to you?
Abrams: As much as I appreciate your complimentary segue — ie: if you say it enough, I may eventually believe it — I don't think Us requires an encyclopedic knowledge of horror or horror tropes. Its pleasures and (for me) minor frustrations stem from its focus on the cultural amnesia that's symbolized/represented by The Tethered and their inexplicable origins. I singled out Peele's red carpet quote about believability because I think it speaks to his strengths as a horror filmmaker: he's so meticulous and specific on a character/setting/referential level that eventually, any questions I had about plausibility or incidental plot holes completely evaporated. He doesn't sweat the small stuff and his confidence is contagious.
To me, Us is simply about one character's tragic inability (and probably, after a point, refusal) to see herself in another. The movie's concluding twenty minutes (or so) really make or break the movie, but almost every scene furthers that general thematic concern. Like: when Adelaide first meets Red, she's looking at the back of her head. She only remembers seeing Red's face later on in the movie, at which point it's unclear if what we're seeing is strictly objective reality or part of a hazy flashback that Adelaide, unbeknownst to even her, has suppressed. Also: while The Tethered's red jumpsuits may not necessarily be a MAGA-hat reference, they do bring Trump's supporters to mind (for me). And that association makes The Tethered's messed up "Hand Across America" statement — when viewed as Red's long-anticipated revenge — even more upsetting: we are only united by our refusal to understand or at least recognize each other. We are not the world; we lack introspection and desperately want to destroy ourselves/each other.
But yes, Us also features a ton of horror and horror-adjacent symbols: The Tethered as Romero-like zombies, whose origins are kept intentionally vague; the Santa Cruz beachside carnival, which brings to mind The Lost Boys; the Shining references that Monica alludes to; and the handful of Wes Craven references that I saw throughout the movie (ex: Jason's doppelganger is named Pluto, just like Michael Berryman's mutant loner in Craven's The Hills Have Eyes). Craven's the key, for me, both in terms of thematic resonance and simplicity. In Us — as in most movies by Craven — violence doesn't solve problems, though it is often funny, surreal and upsetting. Mostly because the movie's protagonists aren't given time enough to catch their breath and tamp down their fight-or-flight responses. And without a little perspective, they can't identify with or forgive their attackers.
How did you read the movie's conclusion, especially its twist ending? It worked for me, in a big way. But it is essentially anti-climactic, as is much of Us. So did it work for you?
Boone: I dug the movie's concluding switcheroo and the fall of its thematic dominoes, but with the cool appreciation of an art installation viewer as opposed to that of a moviegoer. But hey, it's 2019. Maybe it's time to get over popcorn expectations (I tell myself as a mantra, like a reformed addict). I agree with you that the film centers on Adelaide's failure to connect with her own personal Other, but not "simply" that. The third act is when I checked out of the film as a movie, but checked in with the essay thesis that had been accumulating evidence all along, well said by you: "we are only united by our refusal to understand or at least recognize each other. We are not the world; we lack introspection and desperately want to destroy ourselves/each other."
Us is about the U.S. as a fragmented hot mess, a nation endlessly divisible, isolated down to the individual family member. Go back to the first act car ride and watch how rigorously Peele gives each family member his or her own stock-still medium closeup. Or later when boozer dad Josh (Tim Heidecker) is too addled in his own La-Z-Boy bliss to check whether his home is being invaded. Or the fact that he's not even convinced when his wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) insists that she heard something outside. Yet for all of this "me time" various characters indulge, no one uses it to deal with the buried (tethered) aspect of themselves that might compel real action and change.
In my own bubble of habitually viewing Peele's work through the prism of race, I first connected Us to two possible sources of inspiration that I've yet to hear him confirm or deny: Ice Cube's "Us" and W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Talented Tenth." Both works consider African-American upward mobility and the problem of cooperation between the classes. Both are as grisly and uncomfortable in their self-styled truth-telling as Peele's near-bravura "Fuck the Police"-scored beach house bloodbath.
It's just that, as you and Monica Castillo point out, Peele is after all that and much more. He's as much a Geek-American as an African-American, and his primary concern is the failure of intoxicating, unifying pop culture milestones to transform America's enduring system of exploitation fueled by broken promises. The film's opening and denouement happen at the place where most Americans learn, as children, to either buy into or reject the hype: an amusement park.
You mention Peele's infectious confidence. Is there a moment or scene where that confidence truly erased the boundaries of the screen for you, more popcorn than notebook? Or is that even important, given all the food for thought up there?
Abrams: There are so many little moments that won me over, first in the moment and then later in hindsight: the way that Josh and Kitty's Alexa knockoff (Sorry, but "Ophelia" made me laugh) inadvertently kills them because "she" can't understand them; the martyr-like pose (two arms, outstretched in a T-shape) that both Jason and Pluto assume when the former kid uses his (blessedly) inexplicable hold over his doppelganger to kill him; the way that Red's whistling first enrages and then maybe forces Adelaide to remember her unpleasant past; and the uncommented-upon fact that two different kinds of characters wear Black Flag shirts at two different times (1986 and the present day), the juxtaposition of which creates its own meaning. That — all of that — is what I love about Us: I know that when I rewatch it, I'll spot new details that create new connections. Us may not be an especially deep movie, but it is an exceptionally well realized one.
What about you: what scene or scenes did you particularly glom onto?
Boone: The moment where the Wilson family's Tethered doppelgangers first menace and storm the house offers so many disorienting and unsettling reveals that it would have done the distributor good to leave them out of the trailers. (I can only imagine the impact that scene would have had without months of teaser-spoiling.) My favorite oddity from that sequence is Lupita Nyong'o's voice as Red, sounding as though it is crackling from the desiccated vocal chords of a re-animated corpse.
But then she wouldn't shut up. Red's ongoing monologue, using parables and metaphors for her plight and her captive's fate, drained all the menace and mystery from the events. It was like having the Jaws shark hanging around Amity beach to explain why he needs to bite tourists.
We do get one more scintillating scene, the previously mentioned "Fuck the Police" family massacre, before the film gives itself over fully to monologues and montages. It wasn't until the final shot of the movie — the nightmarish interpolation of "Hands Across America" as glimpsed throughout the film — that I felt a visceral reaction.
So much complaining for a movie I like! Well, for all its operatic violence, its impact mostly isn't visceral or immediate but cerebral and (upon reflection) emotional. Days after seeing Us, I'm haunted by the idea of the Tethered, who are basically just the millions of Americans (and others) sacrificed to furnish the domestic comfort of an aloof, insular and ignorant middle class. I keep seeing a little girl ballerina performing against a spotlight, unaware in that moment that her dream would soon be deferred indefinitely. (The repetitious pirouettes reminded me of the block of uncarved wood in If Beale Street Could Talk.)
Coincidentally, I happen to be reading Charles Bukowski's Ham on Rye. There's a character named Red, a bullied little boy with a prosthetic arm who yearns to play football: "...Red and I were on his front lawn passing and kicking the football. Chuck and his friends weren't around. Red and I were getting better and better. Practice, that's all it took. All a guy needed was a chance. Somebody was always controlling who got a chance and who didn't."
That's the latent, uncool fun of Us. It's no enveloping fever dream, but has so much on its mind that it rewards you later on if you have a lot on yours.