Us Soundtrack

(Us, the new horror film from Jordan Peele, is in theaters now and it’s the kind of movie that demands a conversation. So Jacob Hall and Ben Pearson are here to do that. Let’s unwrap this movie’s mysteries, shall we?)

Jacob: So you’ve just seen Jordan Peele’s Us. And you have questions, right? Trust us – we know the feeling. Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is a shotgun blast of ideas smuggled into a crowd-pleasing horror movie. Its themes are troubling. Its concepts are tricky. Its perspective is deliberately obfuscated just enough to demand conversation and debate, because the text itself isn’t going to offer up easy answers. That’s why we’re here. Not to fully “explain” Us, a film that defies categorization and easy definitions, but to dig in, to grapple with it, and hopefully inspire you to continue this conversation with your friends after you see it again. Because we’re all going to see it again, right?

Ben: I know I will. In this piece, we’ll present a recap of some of the most head-scratching aspects of the film and try to dig into the thematic meanings behind them – or rather, some possibilities about their thematic meanings. We’ve included several quotes from Peele throughout, but he’s (rightfully) been cagey so far about definitively explaining…well, just about anything. To be clear: this film isn’t a puzzle to be solved, but it was specifically designed to spark conversation. So let’s dive in, but be warned: there are major spoilers ahead.

Who Are the Tethered?

Jacob: Peele’s screenplay deliberately leaves many questions unanswered when it comes to his main villains. Understanding the exact hows and whys of these doppelgängers is shuffled into the corner, a beguiling mystery that exists to fuel the threat our heroes face, create a set of terrifying villains, and present tough questions about how we, as a species, actually operate. What we know for sure is that “the Tethered” are the result of a massive government program of some kind, conducted in miles and miles of concrete tunnels underneath the United States. Everything has that sterile, blank look of a laboratory, but the connection between the Tethered and those above suggests something more…occult.

In fact, it’s said this experiment was all about controlling the human soul (shades of that infamous mind control/fluoride conspiracy theory mentioned earlier in the film), which suggests an experiment that is attempting to meld science and mysticism. But are they clones? If so, where did they get the DNA? Are they some kind of occult copy, like a VHS tape recording of the proper high-def broadcast? If so, how has this power gone unnoticed? Peele goes out of his way to make sure we don’t know more than this. It’s intentional. Those who started this experiment abandoned it – and the millions of subjects – underground decades ago. The only person who lives there after experiencing life above has lost her mind. Part of the terror of the film is knowing that these gaps will probably never get filled.

What else am I missing, Ben? I know people from my screening and yours alike feel like they missed something important here. Is it that deliberately opaque?

Ben: I think you covered the basics. For most of the film, we’re kept in the dark about who or what the Tethered are. But late in the film, Adelaide and Red – the two characters played by Lupita Nyong’o – come face to face and the explanation is laid out like Goldfinger telling James Bond about his evil plans. Scenes like that can be tough to follow sometimes, and I think even viewers who have been fully engaged up until that point have found their eyes glazing over a little during that scene.

Naturally, when a movie presents the idea of an entire society living in underground tunnels, it’s going to raise some questions for literal-minded viewers. But we’ll talk about that in a minute. Before we get there: Jacob, what do you think Peele is trying to say with the Tethered?

Jordan Peele's Us Super Bowl Trailer

What Do the Tethered Represent?

Jacob: Oh, boy. Here’s where we have to start wading into the murky swamp of metaphor Peele has laid out before us. I think everyone is going to have a different read on what the Tethered represent and what their mission means. But that’s part of the fun, right? I like that there are no hard truths presented here – only an opportunity for conversation. With that said…the Tethered are totally a metaphor for the forgotten people from the forgotten corners of America, right? Your own personal politics may inform where that forgotten corner is and what kind of person it represents, but the allegory feels unmistakable.

We’ll dive into more details as we get more specific, but this is a giant, coordinated uprising of people who have been literally left underground by the government, ignored by the social safety net, and forced to watch as people just like them prosper above. And there is nothing they can do about it. There is no way up. Literally. Not until a leader arrived to help them rise up. It’s an awfully malleable metaphor, so much so that Peele has already made it clear that Us is not explicitly about race. His goal with casting black actors in Us, he said, was more about representing talent that Hollywood often ignores, overlooks, and misunderstands. Then again, that in of itself is a political act:

“Obviously, my first film had a black lead and it was very much about race, but I think it’s just as much of a statement to make a horror movie with a black family at the centre of it and to just have that be so.”

Anyway, the Tethered are an unsettling stand-in for Americans who feel wronged and angry and want to shock the system. Ben, I know you followed this through-line to a completely different endpoint than me, but do we agree on this much?

Ben: I think so, yes. Here’s my overarching take on Us, the foundation from which the rest of my thoughts are built: I think this is one of the first overtly political mainstream studio movies of the Trump era. We’ve been pointing out political references in dozens of movies over the past couple of years partially because we’ve been constantly inundated in the political news cycle, but many of those films were in some form of development before the 2016 election. That’s not to say that a film like Black Panther, for example, didn’t feel strikingly resonant at the time of its release, but Us was conceived, written, and directed after the most recent presidential election.

On a recent episode of The Big Picture podcast, Peele said:

“With Us, it wasn’t until I realized that there was another suppressed piece of [cultural] conversation that I could acknowledge with this movie that I realized I had to make, and that suppressed piece of the conversation is our inability to point our finger inward at us, at our faction. Be it our family, our country, or even us as individuals, our part in it. We’re so trained to point the finger outward…for the past year and a half, I’ve been on a ‘them, them, them’ mentality the same way the people that I think are wrong [have been]. Whether I’m right or wrong doesn’t matter – we all have to soul search and figure out what our part in evil is.”

I think The Tethered represent the modern Republican party. That sound you hear is many people angrily clicking away, but follow me on this: they’re cloaked in red (the color associated with Republicans), they’re a united front during a time when Democrats are quibbling among themselves, and as you mentioned, they feel wronged and angry. When asked who they are, Red answers, “We are Americans.” The Tethered have been there all along, and they look just like we do. During that big Bond-style exposition dump, Red says that the scientists who created The Tethered “forgot about us,” reflecting the fears of white rural Republican voters in coal country. There’s a huge visual cue in the film that lends the most support to this read, but we’ll get to that shortly.

The Final, Tragic Twist

Jacob: I know the final twist in Us has proven divisive amongst those who saw the film early, but I love it. And I love it because it’s a big twist that manages to be genuinely surprising, fuel the larger themes of the film, and force you to re-examine earlier scenes in a context that transforms their horror into tragedy. So let’s address those one at a time.

First, that twist arrives and it shocks you and then you think about it and yeah, it’s airtight. Nothing in the movie feels like a cheat once you know that Adelaide and Red switched places years ago and have been living each other’s lives. Like the best climactic twists, the ones that serve as the final exclamation point to the movie, it enhances what came before and never diminishes the drama. Good stuff!

Second, a Tethered switching places with her above-ground counterpart and thriving in her life adds a sobering wrinkle to the entire mythology here. We see the Tethered as blank zombies, these approximations of human beings who don’t belong in polite society. They are the other. But when a Tethered steps into our society, when she is given every opportunity an above-grounder is given, she achieves it all: she’s a remarkable dancer, she marries the man of her dreams, and builds a wonderful family in a comfortable middle-class existence. She was given the opportunities purposefully denied to the other Tethered. She just needed the privilege that so many millions of Americans take for granted.

And finally, how deeply sad are the early scenes between Adelaide and Red once you know the truth? What previously looked like an anxious woman battling PTSD while being menaced by a killer sociopath becomes something profoundly tragic. We realize in retrospect that we’re watching a guilt-ridden woman, waiting for the day when her past sins would catch up with her, face down a counterpart who is rightfully seeking vengeance against the person who destroyed her life. And yet, we know “Adelaide” has used her privilege well. And yet, we know “Red” would have also thrived if she was allowed to keep her life. They’re trapped in a circle of loathing, rage, and fear – that high-concept home invasion becomes something so much more when you know why it’s happening. Honestly, I love that Universal is releasing this movie because it means Red can be a classic Universal Monster alongside Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. She certainly fits in with that sad, broken bunch.

What do you think of this twist, Ben?

Ben: On a purely narrative level, I suspected something might be amiss from the first time we see young Adelaide watching her parents in the therapist’s office, but then I promptly forgot about it for the rest of the movie and found myself totally sucked into the story until the reveal came. I love that Peele baked this in so you immediately want to see the movie again, and of course the twist makes Nyong’o’s performance even more stunning in retrospect.

On a thematic level, I’ll admit the ending was the aspect I struggled with the most as I wrestled with whether or not it aligned with my political read. Unwitting or not, Adelaide is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and though the audience has been rooting for her the whole time, the rug is pulled out from under us and we realize the truth is more complicated than we thought. Sound familiar? It probably does to Trump voters who are doing their taxes right about now.

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