Do not read the following post if you have not yet seen the film Us. This post contains major spoilers.
I went to see Jordan Peele’s latest film, Us, again last night . . . even though I really didn’t want to. I had convinced myself (since I was being strongarmed into attending again anyway) that the second viewing would allow me to pay more attention to the small hints, nuggets, tie-ins, and details that I had missed the first time around—you know, the ones that everyone was debating about on Facebook and Twitter. And it did. The problem is, that just didn’t make the movie any better for me.
Going into the film, I had high hopes. Peele had the recent Get Out under his belt, which I did not find scary at all (and whose entire plot I predicted about 20 minutes into my first viewing), but which was an immensely enjoyable in-theater viewing experience. White girl eating fruit loops one by one from the bowl? Classic. Not so with Us.
Let me say this. I have enjoyed the Easter egg hunting analysis that has been consistently evolving on social media and blogs since Us was released a few weeks ago. There’s about as much metaphorical language and imagery, allegory, synecdoche, hidden meanings, and double-speak as any movie could handle in this 116 minute film. That kind of stuff is fun to debate and discuss after the movie has let out and you are wondering “why” this or “why” that. But, what didn’t fulfill me was the actual experience of sitting in the theater and watching the film. A movie has to be enjoyable for the viewing, not just for the dissecting, and Peele unfortunately missed the boat on making me care about the characters and what happened to them beyond solving the “mysteries” of the hows and the whys he littered throughout the film.
Like many other horror movies, the plot is predictable and trots along until it ends with a twist that is supposed to make you rethink your understanding of the characters and the events you were shown in the film. This structure has been tried and true since the days of The Sixth Sense—but true in terms of ticket sales, not quality. It’s funny, because I’ve read so many reviews that refer to this film as “strange,” or “chilling,” and I’m not exactly sure to which parts they’re referring. Maybe the initial scene in which the doppelganger family invades the Wilsons’ home is tense. But everything after that is the typical stuff of a fight-through-the-night horror movie. Now, I do understand that Peele tries to turn the genre and that formula on its head a bit with the extensive symbolism and thematic elements he hides in every layer of the film. But does that make the watching of this film any different from watching the many home-invasion-by-psycho movies that exist? No. Do we care, while sitting in our theater seats, that these psychos are oppressed and are humans (Americans!) just like us? I mean . . . I don’t.
Not to mention, there are the typical horror movie holes that pop up throughout the film. How did the tethered get a hold of matching gloves and red jumpsuits if they live exclusively underground? As a matter of fact, how did they get any clothes to match their above-ground counterparts? How did Adelaide overcome not being able to read, write, speak, or do anything beyond growl and smile evilly when she emerged from that house of mirrors? If Red was the true above-grounder all along, how did her freedom become restricted and she become tethered just by trading locations with Adelaide — was the mere act of taking her down into the tunnel enough for them to truly “switch places” in the power dynamic of the tethered and humans? Why did none of the tethered care that the person leading them to freedom was a tether-imposter . . . or react at all when they saw her being drug down there in the first place (or untether themselves from their mime routine in order to ordain her with their hands after her dance routine)? How exactly did the tethered untether at all if they were the shadows who were forced to mime the actions of the above-grounders all that time? And also, you mean to tell me that the government created this program of clones and then decided it wasn’t working out, and then just left all the clones completely unsecured in some tunnels with lots of means of escape to the above?
But, like with any decent horror movie, you can get past most of the plot holes and stretches, and then you get to dig into all of the Easter eggs that Peele hides for us throughout the film. On the second viewing, I caught so much more. The spider that Adelaide watches cross her table (the Itsy Bitsy Spider recurring throughout the film as this is the last thing that Red whistles to herself before her foray underground). The constant imagery of people interlocking arms or hands, particularly in the art in the Wilsons’ vacation home. Adelaide saying that she “doesn’t feel like herself” and her husband responding “you look like yourself to me,” which is not the same thing . . . obviously. The commercial for Hands Across America commanding Americans to “tether” themselves for a greater cause. Adelaide and Jason being severely rhythmically challenged as hell (I still don’t get that one, but probably has something to do with why Jason can actually control his tethered version still and Adelaide being a tethered-gone-wild). These things are all fun to ponder, sure. Plus, Lupita did that with her acting (though I think the script failed her in many, many places).
But during the actual time watching the movie in the theater, I just hear Winston Duke’s grating voice, which sounds like Peele directed him to talk like he was answering the phone for a bill collector. I see Zora running slow as fuck down the street like she wasn’t on a whole track team (maybe that’s why she quit). I roll my eyes as that bologna-faced girl from Handmaid’s Tale puts on lip gloss and smiles in the mirror like that’s supposed to mean something to me. I lose focus as rabbits hop around tunnels all willy-nilly, and I also wonder what the rabbits have been eating to stay alive all those years down there. When I find out that Red is really the real real Adelaide, I can’t help but wonder if her banishment below ground suddenly stopped her from doing her hair, because it is something awful. Most of all, I realize by the time the family pulls up to the very beach that Adelaide insisted on avoiding at the beginning of the movie, but now returns to inexplicably (even though I thought they were going to Mexico), that I don’t really care too much anymore what happens to the Wilsons anymore. The twist at the end was anti-climatic for me because neither Adelaide nor Red moved me by that point. It was almost impossible to identify with Adelaide’s paranoia and stupendously bad decision-making in a way that made me care about her . . . but the revelation that Red was the true above-grounder did nothing for me either because she was introduced so briefly before being turned into the “villain” of the plot that I had no time to care about whether she made it out or not. The horror experience only works if it makes you care, either about the characters as presented or the possibilities should you find yourself in such a situation. That’s why so many horror movies are so bad, because they fail extravagantly at either course.
Honestly, I just kept thinking about how the doppelganger Wilsons would have been blasted to Kingdom Come if they tried to roll up in the driveway of most of the folks I grew up around in Georgia actin’ a fool in the middle of the night. That’s the movie I’d like to see Peele make.