[personal profile] justira posting in [community profile] ladybusiness


Having watched Jordan Peele's second film, Us, I've also been consuming a lot of reviews and takes, and... oh boy. Internet, we need to talk

A lot of reviewers took issue with the movie for not building up its revelations enough, for leaving questions unresolved or plot threads hanging. Here's the trick: Not every piece of art is meant to be immediately satisfying. A lot of art is not meant to be comfortable, immediately or ever. There's a reason Dr. César A. Cruz's quote, "Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable," has gotten so much traction. Us has a lot to do with the idea of complicity, with willful ignorance.

Us is a movie that is meant to be digested. In a movie about what kind of people get things handed to them on a silver platter, Jordan Peele is inviting us to question the very feeling of not having information handed to us (on a platter). If there's something you don't know or don't understand by the end of the movie, I think it's worth sitting with that feeling a bit. Jordan Peele may not have all the answers, but I think he asked the right question, and that's the point. And I want to talk about the question, potential answers, and why I think so many people are so damn unsatisfied and uncomfortable.

Note: There will be spoilers. For the whole thing.



A while ago I wrote a post about reader discomfort and the semiotics of the self. For those who understandably don't want to read the whole thing: discomfort teaches us about ourselves. Bodies speak the language of pain, and discomfort helps us define the edges of ourselves. And if ever there has been a movie about the discomfort of the self and finding where the edges of ourselves lie, it is Us.



The implicit phrase is "us vs. them," and there's a lot of play with the title there, a love of words and double meanings that I can only delight in. "We're Americans", Red says, in a line that haunts me, in a movie that could be read as "U.S." The very title of Us invites the audience to see commonalities, connections, ties, tethers. Beyond defining an "us" and a "them" in broader sociopolitical or class terms, the movie challenges the audience to see itself in the film, in the monstrous as well as the mundane. That the Adelaide we've been rooting for is a Tethered, that the line between "us" and "them" is not at all clear -- that has been the movie's message all along, and the twist is less of a surprise than a foregone conclusion that should be appreciated in the craft of its delivery. How much you as an audience member try to distance yourself from "them", from the Tethered -- how much you try to enjoy this movie as the same sort of luxurious pop culture escapism as half its soundtrack is -- is rooted deeply in your own relationship to the kyriarchy. Karen Han at Polygon is right on the money when she describes the Tethered as "the 'them' [their counterparts] would be described as behind their backs." She elaborates:
Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) is the platonic ideal of a goofy dad; Abraham, his double, serves a dual function as the Gabe who has lived his life by somebody else’s rules, and the “other” perception of Gabe, a racist, criminal stereotype of black men, making him out to be menacing when all he cares about is protecting and freeing his family. The tethered daughter, Umbrae (Shahidi Wright Joseph), is referred to as a “little monster” by her mother, Red (Lupita Nyong’o); though she shares her double’s talent for running, it’s the addition of a permanent, eerie grin that brings up shades of how young women in particular are always expected (and instructed) to smile. She’s manifesting the image that’s projected onto her in the same way that her father is.

Winston's Duke's performance as Gabe dips into the territory of his doppelgänger when he confronts the Tethered in the driveway, code-switching and deepening his voice in an effort to be threatening. Where do you draw the line? Between the monstrous and the mundane, between caricature and commentary?

Us challenges the audience, challenges us, not just to consider this divide, but interrogate the idea of a chasm where in truth there is a spectrum. Who is the other, and how much of them is in ourselves? The movie is ripe for interpretation, from the broadly social to the precisely personal. Here is an interpretation suggested by one of my partners: mental illness. The other that lives your same life, that separates you from your loved ones, that warps the characteristics that you see as vital to yourself. I can easily see depression in this movie ("I want my daughter back"), and I've written before about the necessary introspection that comes with my mental illness. Introspection is what Us demands; by looking within yourself you define the limits of yourself, what you are capable of, what constitutes "someone like you".

Red is someone very much like Adelaide. Or, to put it more pointedly, Adelaide is someone very much like Red. She starts the movie dressed in white, and as the bloodstains accumulate on her clothes, as she kills and witnesses deaths, she becomes redder and redder, more like the red jumpsuits her kin the Tethered wear, more and more like Red, whose life she stole. But Adelaide's life was stolen from her from the very beginning. Critics have claimed that the movie doesn't have true villains in the end. I think the true villain is very obvious; it is just that we never see them. The real monsters are the ones who made the system, even as the smaller villains are those complicit in it. The people who created the Tethered are mentioned once and never thought of again, but it is they who created this system of one scarce soul shared between two bodies. Limited resources come up again and again in the movie, just as the Wilsons have to fight with improvised weapons, just as Adelaide's hands are bound for half the film, just as the Tethered subsist on rabbits. Both the Wilsons and the Tylers can afford vacation homes, but the Wilsons have to do it on a budget, playing keeping up with the Joneses -- and this is placed, absurdly and yet clenchingly realistically, against the plight of the Tethered, the have-nots parroting the actions and lives of the wealthy, while possessing none of their resources. This idea of duality and a bifurcated American experience -- they, too, are Americans -- resonates throughout the movie, and is built up consistently. And as the movie makes plain, being born on the "right" side of society does not save you. The original Adelaide, who is made Red, is dragged down, due to chance or fate -- it does not, in the end, matter which, because the true failure here was one of empathy. Together, Adelaide and Red could have been a revelation. Instead, Red is left to lead a revolution.



The idea of coming together pervades the film. The Tethered wield scissors: two identical pieces that, bound together, create a whole that can destroy -- or liberate. The song that became central to the movie, Luniz's "I Got 5 on It", chronicles both chariness ("I'll be damned if you get high off me for free") and coming together with another person to achieve a goal and make a whole, all framed in the context of limited money. "It's not about drugs," Gabe says, and in a way he's right. The very presence of the song in the soundtrack -- the shape of the soundtrack itself -- is a story of limited resources and connection. After Jordan Peele's Oscar win for the script to Get Out, his budget and shooting time for Us were greatly increased, and one of the ways he used those resources was in expanding the soundtrack of the film. Audiences then connected with the use of "I Got 5 on It" in the trailer, leading to greater use of the song in the film. But the presence of pop music in the film -- how strongly Adelaide connects to it and enjoys it -- speaks to the luxury of emotional expression itself. There's two sides to this coin (of course there are), pairing the privilege of emotion with what Chris Hewitt at Empire calls "the apathy of privilege."

That is what it comes down to, in the end. We who are privileged to live the higher life -- literally or metaphorically -- have the privilege of ignoring the cost of such a life. If we do not want to think about how the bodies and lives of those below us are exploited, then we don't have to. By leaving us with unanswered questions, Jordan Peele invites us to interrogate not only our instinct to assign otherness and villainy, but also our assumption that we can wait passively to be handed clear answers about social cost, or about right and wrong. If we are not already thinking about the cost of these classic all-American existences like those of the Wilsons -- they have those stick figure family stickers on their car, and the Tethered appear in their driveway in the same order -- then that is on us.



"We're Americans," Red says. A lot of people found this line funny -- and it is, and that's good, as humorous horror is definitely Jordan Peele's brand -- but for me it's also the most haunting line in the movie and one that encapsulates its mood and message most completely. The Tethered are citizens, too. The pressure of our luxurious lives weighs on them. I imagine the Tethered feeling the press of all those tons of earth above them, the weight, too thick to feel the footsteps of their doubles above and yet they feel the impact anyway, feet pressing the earth down. I imagine Adelaide feeling the weight of all her choices, knowing Red will be forced to enact them below, to dance to her tune, to make matching children with Abraham. This knowledge is Adelaide's gift and curse. I imagine it adds to the savour of her new life, and what choice does she have anyway? To not live her life?

She did have a choice though. The question hovers between Adelaide and Red: why didn't you bring me with you? The question hovers in front of us, if we allow ourselves to see it: why are we not lifting each other up? Jordan Peele explicitly stated:
There’s something about this idea that the doppelganger that has this creepy smile ... they know more than you know. I was sort of connecting that to, first and foremost, our fear — our societal fear — of terrorism, of an attack, of an invader coming in who has been plotting something mysterious. Besides the fact that this is an awful event is the idea that there is a well-oiled plan. And the only other thing that’s more terrifying than that is the suppressed feelings of what our part in these tragedies is, even if we are the victim.

What our part in these tragedies is, even if we are the victim. Even if the real monsters create the system, we all play a part in perpetuating it, and the ignorance of those above is by nature willful. Jordan Peele does not have to feed us these answers. The movie is meant to be digested; you are meant to mull it over. We are not baby birds. We do not need our food chewed for us. Jordan Peele is explicit about this, too:
Without revealing too much, Us takes some major twists and reveals a vast world beneath the surface of the invasion thriller premise. How much of that mythology did you build out so that you could show slivers of it?
Everything. I have the entire mythology of this world because the audience can tell if you don’t. The choice becomes how much of that mythology do you reveal. The line that I’m exploring in this movie is a very difficult line. Some people might want less explanation. Some people might want more explanation. I’m trying to serve whatever your appetite is, but ultimately I’m trying to give enough context to be able to discuss and hypothesize about more. When it’s all wrapped up neatly and perfectly, it alleviates the fear. I don’t want to do it.

That discomfort that reviewers have felt upon not having all the answers? That's on purpose. That discomfort is part of the terror, part of what makes this a horror movie -- and a successful one. What lives down there, in the tunnels that feature in the opening card? It is our own willful ignorance. It is us.


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