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Stop trying to figure 'Us' out

film review

Jordan Peele's second film "Us" broke the box office record for an original horror movie.
Jordan Peele's second film "Us" broke the box office record for an original horror movie.

Note: This review contains spoilers for the movie "Us."

When Jordan Peele announced he was working on a new movie following the release of “Get Out,” it seemed like the flood of internet conspiracy theories on his first film just took a new shape. And after a $70 million opening weekend that broke the box office record for an original horror movie, fans looked online to help explain the lack of answers provided in “Us.” 

In a classic tale of the family-vacation-gone-wrong, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) is forced to revisit her childhood demons when an identical family with murderous intentions shows up at her family's vacation home. The matriarch must lead her family to reckon with these suppressed beings, both figuratively and literally, to make it out alive. 

Although I was curious about possible theories to better understand Peele’s heavily layered, metaphorical masterpiece of a world, I challenged myself to wait to read reviews and explanations until I had at least a day to think about it myself. This immediately proved futile. There were details of the film that kept eating at me. Why didn’t Red/real Adelaide just leave the Tethered? What’s up with the Tylers? If I didn’t have a full body of knowledge on every aspect of the story, it seemed that my “interpretation” would somehow be wrong. So, like millions of others, I Googled “Jeremiah 11:11,” Hands Across America and interviews with anyone who had even the slightest connection to the film. And while looking up the occasional Bible quote is understandable, I worry that our rush to scour the internet for reviews to satisfy that uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty may detract from our natural processing of it. We may lose sight of the deeper meaning of the film: that the answers to its questions are already inside all of Us. 

Peele did explain in an interview on the "Today" show that one goal of the film was to challenge viewers to stop “pointing the finger outward” and look inward for once. So that’s what I have intended to do in this review. Although it has been hard to refrain from that natural desire for information, I have attempted to listen to and trust my instinctive response first, and then explore how it fits in with the larger conversation. Because it’s these visceral reactions — the tightening and release of the chest after a jump scare or the low-bellied feeling of unsettlement when something new and overwhelmingly eerie occurs — that makes horror such a uniquely powerful mode of film. 

“Get Out” was brilliant because it transposed even a fraction of the black lived experience into the chests of each viewer, white or black. In such an innately terrifying and intimate piece, viewers were forced to feel that sinking feeling, the bile in the stomach, to embody the sharp aching and pungent bitterness with Chris in the sunken place. Sure, the plot explanations were interesting to read, but how much more could they tell you than the feeling you had while watching, a feeling as close to another being’s lived experience as possible? 

This Google-reliant culture of film isn’t all bad — it can certainly facilitate diverse discussions or just be a fun way to learn more about the film. But I worry that these gut reactions we have to personal pieces of art are buried by a seeming need to uncover it all, to be in on the discussion, to make sure we’re clued in on the social currency that is the meme in our FOMO culture. This trend pre-dates the internet, but it seems more prominent with “Us” because it was somewhat of a confusing film. Storytellers purposefully withhold “the answers” from their prying audience in order to let each individual come to their own interpretation. I remember getting lost in “The Magic Treehouse” series as a kid, often left without answers and wishing I could just call up the author to piece it all together. 

And although it is interesting to hear directly from a film’s creator to understand the nuances and intentionalities of the film, there is something to be said about just watching and thinking about it yourself. As soon as a film is put into a category (“it’s about race” or “it’s about poverty”), it loses its ability to exist in cross-sectional spaces, which could threaten the way it is processed by viewers and integrated into their lives. With “Us,” I especially appreciated the lack of answers I found online. Yes, there were the usual suspects of conspiracy theories, but in terms of “answers,” Peele left the meaning intentionally open, merely stating the somewhat obvious – that it was about the duality of being human and facing your deepest, most hidden self. 

When people are quick to give their take on what “Us” was “about,” I’m wary to give mine. Yes, “Us” alluded to the legacy of this country’s racial caste system, and is very much about facing the consequences of that privilege many Americans hold. It deals with the complexity of being human, and how our binary understanding of “good” and “bad” cracks at its seams. It’s about all of this and more. And while I think it’s valuable to have conversations about the film and these substantial themes, I don’t think it should be in pursuit of an “answer.” Because what happens after the answer is discovered? 

I worry that once an “answer” is found, the unsettling feelings and tangled thoughts brought forth from the film are put to rest through the comfort of a Google search. Horror has the ability to spark a certain specific nerve. It manipulates what we fear — arguably the most powerful motivation for human thought and action. If manipulated cleverly, horror films can terrorize something enough so that you can’t help look at it, to reckon with it through the complex, unnerving sensations the film evokes. 

This is what the power of “Us” is — it encourages viewers to question everything: their individuality, their privilege, their mortality. I consider “Us” an adult response to the animated children’s movie “Inside Out,” where the main characters embodied different emotions. Peele has similarly personified the subconscious. By breathing physical life into such an ambiguous concept, Peele demystifies the Other, whether it be in ourselves or actual other people, in order to challenge our presently constricting schema of the binary. It seems that the terror of being confronted by one’s doppelganger lies in truly seeing oneself for the first time. 

In an interview with CineMagna, Lupita Nyong’o questioned the duality of self in each character. “Do we have to choose between one or the other?” She asks. “Are we capable of being both a thing and its opposite? What happens when we embrace it?” 

The Tethered represent this duality: the consequences of our actions, the give to our take, the pain to our pleasure. Whether it be the literal divide between the prosperous and the impoverished, those on opposite sides of the racial hierarchy, or within oneself, the Tethered represent the silenced struggling to be free. 

If this is the first “Us” review you’ve read, or if you’ve come here after exhausting the third page of Google, I encourage you to take a step back. How did the movie make you feel? Where did you feel challenged? What was the scariest to you personally? 

The ambiguity of the movie is intentional — it allows us to look to ourselves for answers, to take a cue from the title itself, to be able to explore our tethered subconscious, whatever that means for each person. Until the rumored sequel, appropriately titled, “Them,” I guess we’ll just have to be satisfied answering these questions ourselves. 

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