Cultural Commentary and Clones: US Movie Review
Besides it being scary, I had no expectations for Us (I avoid watching movie trailers because they always spoil too much for me), but as I was impulsively buying tickets to join my friends in watching Us the opening night my gut told me that it would be worth watching in the theaters. My gut was right. I write this review after seeing Us for the second time within the span of a week. If you like movies that really make you think, this movie is for you.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead!
“They look exactly like us. They think like us. They know where we are. We need to move and keep moving. They won’t stop until they kill us… or we kill them.” -Adelaide Wilson, Us (2019)
Us is written and directed by Jordan Peele. The movie stars Lupita Nyong’o (Nakia in Black Panther), Winston Duke (M’Baku in Black Panther), Shahadi Wright Joseph (young Nala in The Lion King remake), and Evan Alex. The supporting actresses/actors are Elisabeth Moss (June/Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale), and Tim Heidecker (writer/actor for Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories). This is Peele’s second movie as writer/director, Get Out being his first, and he has once again proven his capabilities of creating a thought-provoking horror film that doesn’t rely solely on jump-scares and gory images to capture what truly frightens us.
The beginning of the movie is set in the 1980s on the beach of Santa Cruz where a young girl, Adelaide/Addie, wanders away from her quarreling parents, passing a man holding a sign reading, “Jeremiah 11:11,” before ducking into a hall of mirrors to avoid the rain. The power cuts out and in her panic, she runs towards the ‘Exit’ sign only to run full-force into a mirror. Her expression floods with fear yet she whistles a tune, perhaps to comfort herself, and then another whistle is heard coming from off-screen… She apprehensively navigates through the maze of mirrors, her terror now compelling her to move rather than to stay frozen, and that’s when we get the chill-inducing shot of Addie’s back seemingly against a mirror… but when she slowly turns around, instead of seeing her mirror-image, she sees the back of another girl who looks exactly like her. This first scene establishes the main themes of the film: family dynamics, music, Godly intervention, parallelity, fear, and of course EVIL CLONES!
The rest of the movie is set in present day (with flashbacks) and is full of slow-building anxieties, wild coincidences, hilariously awkward conversations between the main family and their family-friends, funny one-liners, and believable acting across the board.There were moments where staple horror tropes came off as cheesy and perhaps unoriginal, but all-in-all, it rang true to the brilliant abstractions horror films create when aesthetics and fear are paired and presented expertly to produce an intimate reflection that led me to ask myself, “Why am I afraid? What ugliness and terrors in this film are reflections of the ugliness and terrors of reality?”
In a trailer (which I analyzed after watching the movie, of course) Addie asks something along the lines of, “Who are you people,” to which her son seemingly replies, “They’re us.” This is creepy in itself, evil clones are creepy, but the true response in the film is creepier: to Addie’s question, Red, her tethered doppelganger, responds, “We’re American.” Red organized the doppelganger’s so that they would literally create “hands across America,” because she knew for them to gain full agency all human life deserves, and to keep that agency, they needed to make a statement. And this statement is about America.
Red explains that the tethered doppelgangers were created by people who wanted a means to control their doubles living in the “real” world, and when that didn’t work they abandoned the clones to live underground and feed only on raw rabbits. Souls are shared between each double (AKA ‘tethered’) therefore when the person in the above world did something the person from below would do the same thing, only in a way that was twisted or admittedly “evil.” This parallelity of lives is perfect for direct commentary on American culture. For example, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) gets plastic surgery done on her face, and we see her double with scars in the same spot. She jokes about wanting to kill her husband, and when her husband’s double is killed, her double’s crying turns into a malicious laugh. What, exactly, is Peele trying to say about America? I have my opinions (which include things like oppression, capitalism, displaced families, trauma, and faith), but the best thing about art is forming your own opinions about its deeper meanings.
Music in this film plays a big part in the aesthetics and messages of the film. From “I Got 5 On It” by Luniz and Michael Marshall to “F*** The Police” by N.W.A., hip-hop contributes to the familiar sensation necessary for getting in the headspace of the characters, and since hip-hop developed in the U.S. it also supports the film’s emphasis on America and American culture. This brings me to my favorite part of the film: the ballet dance/fight between Addie and Red to an eerie remix of “I Got 5 On It.” Right before they fight, Red says something along the lines of, “And to think, without you I never would have danced.” Dancing is what liberated Red and inspired the others to begin mobilizing in order to free themselves from the decisions their doubles above made; they all could finally take their own time. For Addie, dancing is how she coped from her childhood trauma caused by seeing her double. Music and self-expression heals and undoubtedly empowers.
Now to the climax of the movie… It wasn’t when Addie killed Red. After talking with my friends, we all agreed that we could tell there was going to be a twist of some sort, but none of us predicted that Addie was really the double from below who kidnapped Red that time in the house of mirrors to switch places with her. Even when I understood what happened, it wasn’t clear when Red and Addie themselves realized they had switched places. They were so young when they switched places, and both were arguably traumatized enough for their memories of their former lives to easily fade over time. This unreliable narration adds to the confusion that plot twists are supposed to produce and Peele created and executed it perfectly. It’s easy to think the clones are inherently evil as soon as we meet them since they torment their doubles. Even when we are slowly learning about their struggles as to why they’re doing what they’re doing, it’s hard not to see them as evil. So when I discovered that Red and Addie switched places, I started asking about what is real evil and what is simply conditioning. Are we what we are because of nature or nurture?
Watching the movie for the second time was definitely helpful when it came to deciding my own opinions about the film’s messages and themes, and because the movie is generally entertaining with its comedy, wit, and a bumping soundtrack, it was just as enjoyable. From the opening titles over the backdrop of caged rabbits and chanting children to the gentle yet strong voice of Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” playing behind the bird’s-eye image of the “hands across America,” Us is full of powerful images that elicit strong emotions. Peele, yet again, utilizes the horror genre to its full potential to stimulate people into asking themselves, “What is my worst nightmare? Confronting my evil clone? Or is my worst nightmare discovering that my life does not really belong to me?”
Oh, and for those who haven’t Googled Jeremiah 11:11 yet, here it is: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
“Then there was us.” -Red, to Addie