I don’t always write movie reviews with tons of spoilers, but this IS ONE OF THEM. If you haven’t seen US yet, and you don’t want it ruined…. stop reading now.
Jordan Peele’s sophomore outing in 2019 has convinced me of many things, but the one that stands tallest is this… he has arrived. Peele proved himself as a skilled sketch comedian and writer many years ago, but it wasn’t until 2017’s Get Out that the masses realized 1) he was a very talented and creative director and suspense writer, and 2) that he was actually emerging at that moment as the new signature name in horror. I loved Get Out, but I didn’t realize this was just the beginning. Now I do. I’m writing this review only a week after the release of US, and at this point I’ve already seen it twice.
US tells the story of family on the coast of California, vacationing at a summer home in Santa Cruz. Things seem like they might be normal when all of a sudden… actually, scratch that, things never really seem normal. The movie actually begins in 1986 when young Adelaide wanders away from her parents at a carnival on the shore. In the house of mirrors on the beach, she is shocked to find a doppelgänger. Her eyes go wide… wouldn’t yours?
The movie quickly cuts to the family in a doctors office searching for answers. After their daughter returns from 15 minutes missing at the carnival, she refused to speak. We aren’t sure for how long, as within 2 minutes, we are in the present day with the grown up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) arriving for a vacation in Santa Cruz with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and children Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex). These are the main actors of our film, and take 90 percent of the screen time in US acting in these roles and their creepy as hell doppelgängers.
Turns out there is an underground nation of thousands, millions (we don’t really ever know) doppelgängers which we’ll now refer to as “The Tethered” living in underground tunnels all over the country, waiting for the moment to come above ground and kill us all, led by Adelaide’s tethered named Red, and her psychopathic family.
There have been many other stories about crazy doppelgängers, and maybe I’m just inspired and intrigued by what’s new, but I felt this one was on a whole other level. Some of my favorites are Moon, Mulholland Drive, and The Black Swan (yes it is, just trust me). US does it differently however, it’s thrown right in your face, and they barely every explain it.
The United States (US, cough cough) government wants to create clones of humans, so they can control them from below. It doesn’t work, so they give up on it, and abandoned new generations of The Tethered below ground, slaves to their above-ground masters, who don’t even know they exist. That’s about all we get, but there’s tons to unpack.
The List: New Angles
1.Women and Minorities
Jordan Peele released Get Out in February of 2017, 6 or 7 months before the #MeToo movement began. Now 2 years into it, hatred/violence against women is a national conversation that has regular folks, celebrities, politicians, writers, and many others focused on equality, and tipping the scale back where it belongs (not that it’s ever truly been where it belongs, but that’s a conversation too important for my movie blog).
In 2019, Jordan Peele takes these slightly more enlightened mind sets in America and has introduced some of his own efforts focused on equality. He has stated that after the success of his two films, it’s clear to him that he can make big budget movies with black representation at the helm, and further more that really, he doesn’t plan to cast white men as his leads ever, those stories have already been told, and it’s time for African Americans to carry more films forward to financial successes at the box office.
US is Jordan Peele proving his point. In its opening weekend, it made $70 million. That’s the largest opening for an original horror movie in history. It now also has the best opening for a film with a black female lead in any genre of film. That’s powerful.
Let’s talk about her for a second too. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o leads this cast with a dual role as Adelaide and her evil twin Red. Two completely different characters, with incredible amounts of different types of depth. Really two totally different jobs, which she does at once, amazingly. The other actors also portray multiple characters, but her Lupita is the only one who has speaking lines for each. Different voices, different language, different movements, posture, everything. She was totally amazing. Each of the characters act with incredible motivations, being the only two humans (in theory) to ever live both above ground, and below. I could do a whole post just about her (and someday I might) but for now, just pay close attention to everything she does in this picture. No scenes are wasted, and everything means something, even the way she eats and snaps her fingers.
In reading about the film’s reception many sites are sharing this comment from Peele: “The way I look at it, I get to cast black people in my movies. I feel fortunate to be in this position where I can say to Universal, ‘I want to make a $20 million horror movie with a black family.’ And they say ‘yes, hell yes’” Peele said while speaking at an event at Los Angeles’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theater on Monday. “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie. Not that I don’t like white dudes, but I’ve seen that movie.”
None of this Jordan Peele stuff is about the plot of the movie, but it’s a pretty awesome backdrop. Peele isn’t just the new name in horror, but he’s making smashing successes at the box office, and breaking down racial and gender barriers. Sign me up. His next project is a reboot of The Twilight Zone series. Say what? I’m pumped that’s what.
Something that Get Out and US had in common was the theme of coveting. Seeing other peoples existence, wanting it badly, deciding to do dastardly things in order to get it, and then going for it. Luckily for us, and the leads of the films, the good guys win these battles and make it out alive. The theme is left to echo in our minds eerily. In these films, the good guys survive, but they don’t exactly take down the organizations of bad guys that they face. In each film. the good guys kill the few bad guys that are close by, and escape, but there are tons of bad guys still doing the thing in the background. US ends with the sight of The Wilsons booking it outta Santa Cruz in a stolen ambulance, and we see a twisted version of hands across America with thousands of The Tethered. Seems to me they are winning.
Hands across America was supposed to be a fundraiser that raised $100 million for Africa in 1986; in reality they made less than $20 million after expenses. It should probably have just been a fundraiser where people give money, don’t get a shirt, and don’t go out holding hands. It’s more of a punchline 30 years later than a proud American memory. Jordan Peele does a good job using it as a backsplash to point out how white America often misses the point, and specifically doesn’t recognize evil in our country, lurking just below the surface (like The Tethered — I came up with this idea mostly on my own, but in fairness, I read this article yesterday too, which inspired some of my thinking).
3. The Twist
What this one had that I wasn’t expecting was a pretty simple twist. Our main protagonist is one of The Tethered. She grew up underground, and was the evil twin who appeared in the house of mirrors. She grabbed Red, and stashed her underground. Switched clothes, and went to find her parents. She grows up above ground, and escapes a violent life, enslaved in the tunnels, trading it in for the life she’d never thought was possible. It’s cool, but it’s evil. If she had stayed the course, none of this would have happened. No dead, no chaos, but millions still enslaved held below the surface eating live rabbits.
I’ve seen it twice, I’m telling you, and I still don’t really know who the good guys are, or who the bad guys are. That’s good storytelling.
Speaking of good storytelling, how about all the Easter eggs? The movie begins with a guy playing whack-a-mole (that’s a game where you bash bad guys over the head and force them underground). How about the scissors as the weapon of choice for the tethered? Are they focused on cutting ties, you think? What about The Tethereds’ outfits? Red outfit head to toe, with one glove, sounds like Michael Jackson’s Thriller a bit now? The same album portrayed on the t-shirt right at the start of this whole thing. The other outfits are all pretty telling, too. The little boy holding what could be an award with his white tuxedo shirt, sounds like Jordan Peele winning his first Oscar doesn’t it? Adelaide’s shirt goes from white to red throughout the movie, bit of an echo back to her origins as one of The Tethered. wouldn’t you say? If you watch this movie closely, it’s all in there. Many more Easter eggs exist in the music, the scenery, and the things in the rooms. Enjoy finding them. I sure did.
US is a great horror film, and one I plan to revisit every once in awhile. For those of us who love these scary stories, it’s a solid investment of your time, but go a littler deeper, and you’ll find a lot more than you are expecting.