Jordan Peele Talks Us Expectations

Our Greatest Fear is Ourselves

Jacob: During an audience Q&A following the premiere of Us at SXSW, Peele directly addressed the themes of his film:

“We are in a time where we fear the other, whether it’s the mysterious invader who might kill us or take our jobs, or the faction that doesn’t live near us that votes differently than we did. Maybe the evil is us. Maybe the monster that we’re looking at has our face.”

But as we’re exploring here, and as Peele himself would later allude in many other interviews, it’s hard to come up with one single tidy definition for what’s going on in Us. Here’s what I like about this quote, Ben: he doesn’t specify which side of the coin is intended to be “evil.” After all, isn’t Red right to seek vengeance? Isn’t Adelaide right to grab her one and only opportunity to escape the vicious cycle that has entangled the Tethered? And as the film goes to show, the above-grounders are just as effective at killing as the “barbaric” doppelgängers from beneath the surface.

Americans are their own worst enemies, Us says. And our knee-jerk desire to label good guys and bad guys has created a mess that will take generations to fix, even if we bothered to pause and actually diagnose the rot. Am I making sense? This movie is bending my brain.

Ben: Yep, that all tracks. After getting a glimpse of how the Tethered live below ground, I don’t blame Adelaide one bit for making the switch.

Speaking to Fandango All Access, Peele said:

“This movie’s about trauma, and generational trauma, and this idea that what happens in our ancestry or what happens the generation before us affects us and sort of trickles down…it’s about [how] what we bury deep and try not to face affects the world that we make around us.”

The generational trauma he mentions there obviously applies to Adelaide and Red, but don’t forget about the Wilsons’ daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). You talked about above-grounders being just as brutal as the Tethered, and there may be no greater example than Zora, who grabs a golf club and seems to really relish bashing Tethered heads in with it. She’s this movie’s version of Game of Thrones character Arya Stark – yes, she lost her innocence, but that traumatic event seems to have resulted in her maybe being just a bit too into the whole “gruesome violence” thing. Peele isn’t interested in drawing a clear distinction between good people and bad. He knows life is more complicated than that.

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The Haves and Have-Nots

Jacob: In the front half of Us, we’re introduced to not just the Wilson family, but their friends and lake house neighbors, the Tylers. This other couple (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their obnoxious daughters serve a dual purpose. Narratively, they give our heroes somewhere to flee, and the arrival of Tyler doppelgängers is the sudden and brutal reveal which makes it very clear that Red’s assault on the Wilson house is not an isolated incident (Ben, when I realized the sheer scope of the attack via the first scenes in the Tyler house, I lost. My. Mind.)

But like everything else in the film, the existence of the Tylers is further enforcing what feels to me like one of Peele’s most timely social statements. The Wilsons have a comfortable middle class income. They can afford a lake house and a boat. They can go on family vacations to the beach. They’re not wanting for anything. Food is always on the table. But the Tylers? The Tylers have more. They have the nicer house, the nicer boat, and the flare gun that Gabe totally forgot to buy. It’s a classic case of have and have-nots – someone is always going to have more than you.

In the case of the Tethered, they’re the ultimate have-not story. They’ll never have a lake house or a boat. They’ll never go on a trip to the beach. They’re damned to roam their blank hallways, imitating an existence they can only imagine. Dreaming, if you will, of a life they can never obtain. The rich get richer and buy a boat. The poor get poorer and eat rabbits for every meal. The resentment that digs itself in like a ditch between the Tylers and the Wilsons is amplified to horrifying levels with the Tethered. But they aren’t going to be satisfied by sniping about it behind one another’s backs. They’re going up with scissors. They’re going to get those boats. They’re going to get those houses. Someone can only be deprived for so long before they snap, right?

Ben, I think…I think I sympathize with the Tethered? Or at least have empathy for their plight, even if their methods are, uh, extreme. I know you ended up taking away a far different message from the final scenes of this movie than me (we’ll get there!), but am I crazy?

Ben: Far from it. It’s easy to sympathize: Red was forced to marry Winston Duke‘s Abraham, the Bizarro version of his goofy dad character Gabe, and forced to have two children against her will. That shit is dark.

Here’s a big part of why I love this movie: your explanation in this section perfectly aligns with your larger read on the film, but doesn’t even come close to aligning with mine. But how great is that? It’s rare we get to see a mainstream Hollywood film with so much care devoted to its metaphors and symbolism that there’s this much room for different interpretations (and I’m sure there are several we’re not even mentioning). The last time we got anything remotely close to this was Darren Aronofsky’s mother! back in 2017, and that too felt like a huge outlier.

The Escalator

Jacob: I feel like there are certain images in Us that carry a heavy thematic weight and defy the internet’s obsessive “everything must be explained or it’s a plot hole” mentality. In other words, Jordan Peele doesn’t make movies for the CinemaSins audience and he shouldn’t have to cater to them. So he doesn’t! I want to talk about the escalator, the one that runs down from the funhouse maze on the boardwalk and into the secret Tethered tunnels. Does it make literal sense that an escalator is the only thing keeping the Tethered from escaping? Of course not! Is it the most clever way imaginable to showcase how a system is built to keep people from rising above the station they’re born into? Of course it is! One of Jordan Peele’s heroes is Rod Serling – he knows when subtlety won’t get the job done. Sometimes, you need that sledgehammer.

Were there any specific visual metaphors that stood out to you, Ben? I feel like future viewings are going to reveal so much more.

Ben: That’s such an astute observation about the escalator. I caught the fact that there wasn’t an “up” escalator anywhere to be seen, but because I had a different take on the whole movie, the larger meaning behind it completely passed me by.

There are some relatively obvious things I picked up on (notice how Adelaide’s white shirt slowly becomes more red with blood as the film progresses, hinting toward that big twist ending), but I did notice one metaphor that wasn’t visual because it technically happens off-screen. When the Wilsons are watching a news broadcast, a woman is being interviewed and says she’s “seeing red” – a phrase associated with anger. The interviewer follows up with her, and the woman clarifies that the killers she witnessed were wearing red, but I don’t think that was a slip-up. I read it as a commentary about outrage culture, about how easy it is for us to get angry and point our fingers at the other side without actually doing the work of, as Peele said, examining “our part in evil.” There are a couple more visuals I want to talk about too, but we’ll get to those in just a second.

US trailer Lupita

11:11

Jacob: There’s a great deal of mirror imagery in Us, from characters seeing their reflection in glass to characters literally staring their own doppelgängers in the face. So the Tethered attack essentially beginning at 11:11 at night could, at first, feel like a cheeky continuation of that. Four identical numbers in a row, four members of the Wilson family, etc.

But if you think Jordan Peele is smarter than that…well, you’re right. 11:11 is considered significant in New Age philosophy and numerology. Some see it as a warning, a sign that something terrible is about to happen. Others associate it with Carl Jung’s theory of synchronicity, which suggests that “events are ‘meaningful coincidences’ if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related.” Without diving too deep into this, synchronicity suggests that events can be connected purely by meaning instead of causality. In other words, the things that happen around us aren’t always the result of our direct actions, but the result of a shared common purpose or need. (This could explain why certain tropes and concepts recur throughout stories told all over the world, despite massive distances between cultures.) Could it be that the seemingly “random” Tethered attack happens not because of anything the above-grounders did (causality) but because of what they represent (synchronicity)?

But maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew here. There’s also a Bible verse that fits this, right?

Ben: Oh wow, I’ve never heard about the significance of 11:11 in numerology, and I feel like there’s enough there for an entire thesis paper on that angle alone. (Have I mentioned I love this movie?)

But yes – the Bible verse. In the opening scene, young Adelaide walks across the Santa Cruz boardwalk and sees a man holding a sign that says “Jeremiah 11:11”. Here’s what that verse says:

Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.’

So in addition to that mirror imagery, there’s some classic Old Testament doom and gloom here to boot. Two things jump to mind here, and they largely support your read: the “disaster” taking the form of a revolution, and that haunting shot of Elisabeth Moss’s Tethered character Dahlia trying to scream (“cry out”), but not having the voice to make a sound.

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