Warning: This review discusses the movie’s ending. Have a word with yourself before reading if you’ve yet to see this title.
The mind of Jordan Peele, as introductions to his movies are styled, thinks about the legacy of social division in America and how a growing middle class, and changes to what’s acceptable in public discourse, have moved old social problems out of plain sight and underground.
His Oscar winning Get Out used a Twilight Zone premise, rich white bastards kidnap black people and overlay the victim’s consciousness with their own, to comment on inverse racism (the victims sought for their imagined physical superiority) and the O.J Simpson-ing of middle class blacks; the wilful adoption of white hegemony, the transmission of power and its effects on the beneficiaries. His follow-up, Us, broadens the social critique to take aim at growing inequality and its effect on the human spirit.
Peele imagines a nightmare premise in which, for reasons he can’t fully explain so won’t try, there exists a literal underclass, housed in tunnels and sewers across the United States, populated by tethered doppelgängers of the moderately prosperous and happy population above ground – Morlocks to their Eloi.
It’s important their family lives follow an identical trajectory, a partner for a partner, a child for a child, because this allows for a soul by soul comparison; a horror mirror image of your kith and kin, denied the light and warmth of material comfort, good food and functional human relationships. These doubles share the same fundamental traits as their pairings but lack their education and social refinement. They’re feral, brutal – pack hunters. They’re you, denied a chance in life, and they’re here to kill you.
Peele’s movie lacks the sustained tension of Get Out (there’s too much comic undercutting of the setups, and not quite enough fear registered by the beleaguered family), but is ripe with unease. It’s a rewarding slow burn, content to save its sucker punch to the very last.
Long before the besieged matriarch Adelaide has been outed as her grown up double, the original well-loved girl kidnapped and hauled underground to take her place amongst a brutalised community of subterranean copies, Peele’s made, in stark allegorical terms, his case that circumstance either liberates potential or cages the spirit. He affects a sinister reprise of Hands Across America, the 1986 charity appeal to link arms across the states to raise money for the poor, imagining the rabbit-fed doubles as America’s newest underclass.
Not for nothing do these murderous copies unite to overthrow their decadent and overprivileged counterfactuals. Not for nothing are they given biblical names, invoking impoverished Southern Bible belt communities. Not for nothing are they spurned on by a call to retribution from the good book; the age old reference guide for the perpetually disempowered.
Yet, Peele knows that strong as the message is, his premise has the potential to undermine itself by monstering “them” as a predatory other – the great unwashed who invade your home and kill your family. Consequently, the third act twist, straight from the M. Night Shyamalan playbook, neatly recasts the movie’s threat by revealing Red to be the victim of a social reversal and our heroine as an opportunistic interloper who’s subsequently benefited from years of nurture and support.
It’s a bold and brutal ending that, like all good twists, forces a full reassessment of the story and its many psychological notes in the margin – Adelaide’s implied empathy toward her children’s doubles, the murder of her own. Once you know she traded places with her above ground alternate, consigning her to lifelong suffering and captivity, it’s a very different movie, and one that can’t simply be classified under them and us.
Would the film have benefited for a little clarity on how these doubles came to be – an expository scene here, a scientifically spurious or supernatural explanation there? Something we could have banked to avoid distraction? Perhaps Peele felt a nebulous backstory mirrored the average Joe’s understanding of structural poverty; perhaps he just didn’t have a clue. In any event, the ambiguity isn’t quite enough to sink an otherwise intriguing and uncanny attack on America’s divided self.