Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, and Elizabeth Moss
As complicated as the modern world presently is, it might behoove us, as a species on the verge of cataclysm, to step back and figure out where along the way we went wrong. From our ascension from the brutish state of nature to our adoption of the Social Contract, socialization and cooperation, eventually to systemic industrialization and exploitation, humankind has perpetually struggled with the notion of a “greater good” for collective prosperity: what it entails, who it applies to, who it doesn’t, and how far those with power will go to attain it. The most heinous acts committed through history – global and American slavery, the numerous attempted and successful genocides committed in the name of nationalism/religion, the catastrophic systemic violence perpetrated in service of capital – were all allowed to transpire due to that sole belief in the “greater good,” the ends of which always justify the means, or so our ruling class insists. Jordan Peele’s Us presents us a parallel world, similar to ours in all ways except one and simulates the inevitable retaliation that necessarily comes with the evils committed for the greater good, whether that’s for ourselves, our family, or our nation.
Us follows Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), a young, middle class black woman, with perfectly nuclear family and all, on vacation to their Santa Cruz beach house, where in her adolescence, she faced a disturbing encounter with a sinister doppelgänger. Though she’s managed to live a “good” life with charismatic husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide can’t help but dread the looming reunion with her mysterious adversary. They embark on their first beach excursion, where youngest child Jason ventures away from the family, triggering an already anxious Adelaide into a prompt panic. They find Jason quick enough and while he isn’t physically hurt on his person, it’s clear he’s shook. Later that night, Adelaide’s paranoid suspicion comes to pass, as the doppelgänger she met those all those years prior, along with copies of each of her family, arrives to terrorize the household and claim dominance where it really counts. But before the proverbial show can get going, Red, the name Adelaide’s copy calls herself, takes a moment to provide dramatic subtext to the imminent violence like any good villain. It’s through Red’s brief exposition that we begin to comprehend the scope of her motive.
Once again, funny-man-turned-thespian Jordan Peele masterfully weaponizes thematic misdirection to actualize another circle of social hell, different from that on display in his Academy Award-winning Get Out (2017). Contrary to its ghoulish marketing, the film reveals Red and her army of doppelgängers to have a much more familiar origin than the supernatural implications of their existence suggest. And its in this realization that the film’s point emerges: Red and her fellow “tethered” do not purposely attack to torment our protagonists. No, they are here to seize the lives they’ve been forced to approximate and take their rightful place in a civilized world. We don’t learn the details of where they come from or how, all we know is that they were originally conceived to covertly control the actions of their fulfilled opposites above ground, but when the American authority deemed them no longer necessary they were discarded, left to survive in the underbelly of the country; that is until one of them had an idea to stop the suffering themselves. Why in their right mind should they continue to endure endless torment in service of a neglectful populace when they are relentlessly denied even basic life pleasures? The violence perpetrated isn’t so much malicious as it is retaliatory; very much in the same vein as Oliver Stone’s 1994 cautionary genre flick Natural Born Killers, another fascinating film I’ve discussed at length in an earlier piece, which you can find here.
I don’t feel a need to dive into plot spoilers for Us, but audiences can be assured that every revelation, big and small, only helps solidify Peele’s greater allegory; that is, hierarchical societies, like the Capitalist America we live in, have an implicit expiration date that is pragmatically out of the hands of the ruling class. Under such conditions, there will always be a “tethered” population robbed of every outlet but one, and as long as we refuse to confront ourselves and the evil we force on others to secure our comforts, the outcome will always be the same.