When I went to see ‘Us’ when it first came out back in March, I knew I definitely wanted to write about it. What exactly? I wasn’t sure yet, but when I finally rewatched Jordan Peele’s second feature movie a couple of weeks ago, I felt compelled to revisit my notes and give it another try.
There is literally not one thing that hasn’t been said about Us—Hitchcockian, full on inspired by The Shinning, Peele appears to suddenly be the heir apparent to a seemingly renewed horror genre. And maybe it is true. Peele has clearly chosen to ground his work in the nitty gritty of our daily, boring lives. No monsters, no aliens, no parallel universes, no supernatural, it is ultimately all about ‘us’ as people.
If you ask me what I think about the film, the quality, the storyline… don’t expect me to swoon, though. The payoff was good, the photography was great, the blackberry-melanated cast amazing… which certainly made up for the lack of originality of the storyline and final plot twist. And that’s okay.
It is what we do, we create, recreate, adapt and evolve plots and stories. Nevertheless, I believe the hype certainly amped up the film’s reception. It was a good movie, carried with absolute grace by Queen Lupita, but looking back, I still feel there was something amiss. However, it might just be me…
The mechanisms of othering: where conspiracies and horror meet
Now that this is out of the way, let’s move on. The great thing about inspiration is that it comes absolutely left-field. I admittedly consume lots of news. Trying to keep up with what’s happening around the world while maintaining a sound mind is no easy feat, but I love me a challenge. One of my favourite topics is the mechanics of fake news, conspiracy theories, and how we respond to them.
This article from The New Republic on how Youtube has become a cesspool of crazy conspiracy theories says nothing new, but it somehow helped me realise how in the past 30 years, the idea that ‘governments’ have been actively concealing ‘things’ from us has got an increasingly stronger foothold in the media we consume. From The X-files to Stranger Things, from The Manchurian Candidate to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now Us—it’s everywhere and we want more of it.
They’re not like us
Conspiracy theories generally help us rationalise events that are too traumatic or impactful for us to make sense of. A good example would be the 9/11 attacks. Has the American government coordinated the attacks to ultimately start a war against Iraq? If your answer is ‘maybe’ or ‘who knows’, you’re right where I wanted you to be.
But conspiracies have morphed into something different—they appear to be more and more groundless… like the infamous Pizzagate that rattled people so much, a 28-year old man armed himself and travelled from North Carolina to DC to check in person if the Comet Ping Pong was a high place of child sex trafficking. He ended up firing three shots with an AR-15-style rifle, luckily making no victims.
“‘They’ is a source of danger because ‘they’ is not ‘like us’.”
If conspiracism achieves one thing, it’s to erode our trust in what we hold as guarantors of factual truth and knowledge, but that’s not it. Conspiracies and the horror genre work similarly in the way they not only allow us to other people and entities but also to project our basic fears onto them. ‘They’ is a source of danger because ‘they’ is not ‘like us’.
It is exactly where Peele chose to flip the script. Although his Tethered are part of a deep conspiracy involving illegal government experiments, they’re very much human, albeit a distorted reflection of their above-ground counterparts.
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When the Other is Us, who is the real enemy?
Stories only work because we can recognise ourselves in them. We love to identify with the hero—s/he has the moral high-ground, s/he wants to do good, is learning to do good or has been chosen to harness the power of good… and thus makes a mark, ‘changes the world’. And that is in part what has motivated the Comet Ping Pong attacker: he wanted to be the hero of that story.
“But when your back is against the wall, how far are we ready to stretch the boundaries of morality?”
This very Manichean view of the world doesn’t fare well when real life is about navigating blindly gazillion shades of gray; that’s exactly this very sense of discomfort Peele wants to create with Us. While we think we’ve been rooting all along for the real Adelaide, that it feels right she fights—and fights dirty at that—to protect her family, we’re actually rooting for a cheat, for a usurper.
Then again, can we blame young Tethered Adelaide to have done what she has done in the name of survival? Of course it is not morally acceptable to kidnap and trap someone else to take their place. But when your back is against the wall, how far are we ready to stretch the boundaries of morality?
This time, Us is more about class than race (although it can never be completely absent), where we draw the line between the haves and the have-nots—more particularly what we accept to do or let happen to people of poorer (or no) means and the movie made its mission to closely scrutinise our reaction when they refuse their fate.
Through Adelaide and Red, it is ‘us’ who are placed in front of a mirror and made to question what we, as a society, are ready to let ourselves do to our own selves, who we’re ready to sacrifice to guarantee our spot in the sun. What Us offers is merely a reflection of the self—a reflection on the part of darkness within each and every one of us.
Horror is defined as a feeling of revulsion or disgust after an event has happened. It is what Peele digs up making sure we actively look at the most bizarre, the most reviled aspects of our selves coming to life in front of our eyes, forcing us to wonder if we are indeed the monsters. Here, what we buried, locked down below and refused to let out, spills over like a pool of blood—symbolised by the Tethered’s red jumpsuits—which taints the polished surface we’ve worked so hard to create.
The fact that Tethered Adelaide has forgotten her original sin reminds us of what we’re willing to overlook and erase from our collective memory in order to function in a society which could otherwise turn on us at any given time. A chilling prospect…
“Isn’t it somehow the Western ideology we stand for—revolt in the face of tyranny?”
I believe it is the kind of narratives that resonates quite strongly with the American society which was founded on the very idea that good fortune is a God-given gift and the opposite is a punishment. Did the Tethered somehow deserve their fate? If so, does it make it more acceptable they’re being treated the way they are?
It is a reversal of order that we’re watching unfold with horror, but as bloody as it may be, isn’t it fair? Isn’t is what we would have hoped for if we had sided with the Tethered from the start? Isn’t it somehow the Western ideology we stand for—revolt in the face of tyranny?
At the end of the movie, as the consequences of the final plot twist settle slowly in our minds, we’re put to the test. What are we left to feel when we brutally realise this ‘other’ could actually be ‘us’, when the real enemy lies within? If that’s not true horror…