Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ and the American Nightmare

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GRAPHIC BY RIEL WHITTLE / THE FLAT HAT

Us is not your average “kill your double” horror, but a dark, winding tunnel straight into a writhing pit of American anxieties. And it doesn’t just highlight those anxieties it creates plenty of its own. Jordan Peele can make the beach scary. He can make a cartwheel scary, or a smile. He can make you afraid without any deliberate scare at all, just by making you think that one’s on its way, scissors sharpened. And from simply the design on a character’s T-shirt to the use of coincidences as portentous omens, every detail is deliberately placed, and excellently foreshadowed. The soundtrack, casting, lighting; everything added up just right, resulting in a deeply interesting film. Us made me terrified in all sorts of interesting ways, sure, but it also made me think.  

As I plan to discuss the plot twist and social commentary of this film, this is the point where spoilers begin.

As I mentioned before, Us is one of the most expertly foreshadowed films I’ve ever seen. Imagine not one Chekhov’s gun, but an entire Chekhov’s armory. Everything was purposeful and well thoughtout … and then they ended it with a cliche. The switcheroo. I’ll admit that there were a couple of parts where it seemed like they were going to switch the two of them, and some things made sense (Red being the only Tethered who can speak, while Adelaide was often at a loss for words) but I really thought they wouldn’t do it. It almost felt like the twist was inserted in the final draft to live up to audience expectations. In a movie about doubles, they HAVE to switch places at some point, right?

At first, I thought it made very little sense to include this plot point at all. During the final confrontation of Red and Adelaide, just as they’re descending into the extremely cool fight interposed with their shared ballet dance, an (excellent) line is uttered by the woman we thought was Red: “If it weren’t for you, I never would have danced at all.” How does it make any sense for Addy to say this line? What’s more, why would she say “You could have taken me with you,” when she was the one who dragged Red (the real Addy) down below to make the switch? It begs the question, did Addy remember that she was one of the Tethered at all?  

The more I think about the plot twist, the more I ask myself if it really changed anything about the story. And if perhaps that was the point of the twist in the first place. That’s when things get interesting. Addy and Red are switched, but they are still pretty much who we thought they were. If anything, the switch demonstrates that all of these Tethered have the potential to be human, just like our friend Addy. Addy, who’s canonically stated to have the lesser portion of a soul shared between two, but looks absolutely human. All things considered, the most important part of the twist was ultimately the part I had questioned the most: that it came out of nowhere. That I couldn’t tell.  

Part of me still thinks that they should have nixed the twist altogether and ended with little Red grabbing Addy’s neck. We could have wondered, speculated, came to this conclusion on our own. “Maybe they switched places!” we’d say, and perhaps the ambiguity would have led to a movie that made more sense on the surface. It also might have been less impactful. But I guess we’ll never know.  

The twist, surprisingly, is just the tip of the iceberg. During my first watch, I was sure there was something about this movie that I just wasn’t getting. But as the film progresses, these invading doublegangers become easier and easier to sympathize with. You realize, for the first time, past your fear, how sad they are. How Abraham just radiates despair. How Dahlia relishes putting on makeup for the first time. The film becomes a moral gray area, and Peele’s social horror much more evident.

It all comes down to a line that was at first a bit ambiguous to me, and I think others who have seen the film have had similar experiences. When the family asks who the Tethered are, Red responds: “We are Americans.” This is when Us (with an alternate reading of the title: U.S.), reveals itself as an allegory of class warfare. Peele wants us to sympathize with the invaders, to see that they are on the losing side of the gaps in privilege and opportunity in our society. They are the lower class in society and geography; they were born without the advantage of the surface dwellers but still, they rise up to claim the material comforts they’ve never had.   

And material they are, as the people on the surface seem to be trying just as hard as those below to chase after extravagant worldly possessions, concerned with keeping up with the Joneses (in this case, the Tylers). They want boats, summer homes, Amazon Alexas, the trappings of materialism. The Tethered want these things, too. They have themselves convinced it’s all they’ve ever wanted, that it’s going to bring them happiness. And just like those on the surface, those who already have the chance to attain these empty pleasures, they’re going to discover that they were wrong. If they try to chase the American Dream, they will always be running.  

By the time I decided to rewatch, I was feeling genuine sadness for characters, good and evil. The Tethered were created to control the ones above like puppets, but the reverse ended up happening. Now, born without advantage, they must use their shears and cut the tether, joining the line of freed souls who can finally feel the sunlight on their skin. Take away the, you know, murder, and the Tethered just want what everyone else wants: stuff, freedom, to make themselves known to their unwitting oppressors. This movie wants you to realize that the Tethered and the surface dwellers aren’t so different. That a societal disadvantage, a family, a place of birth, doesn’t stamp out your potential. That, as Jason said at the beginning, “When you point a finger at someone else, you have three pointing back at you.”