Jordan Peele’s Us is a refreshingly modern, yet instantly iconic horror film that shocked viewers in 2019 with its out-of-the-box story, superb technical craftsmanship, surprisingly catchy score, and a truly unexpected twist. Focusing on the shy and reserved Adelaide Wilson who goes to the beach with her family, this peaceful trip is ruined by the unexpected appearance of demented-looking and violent doppelgängers, known as the Tethered. As the movie continues, it’s revealed that the Wilson family is not the only one to have a clone version of them, and that every single person has one.
Led by Adelaide’s clone, who goes by the name “Red,” these beings share identical red jumpsuits, brown gloves and carry golden pairs of scissors. Each family member has their own clone that used to live their days in a dark underground tunnel with no light, proper food, or happiness. They copied every move of the Untethered, eventually breaking through to wreak havoc and reclaim their lives. Each family member’s clone is a more extreme, barbaric version of them that acts upon their dark impulses.
For example, Adelaide’s son Jason and his doppelgänger Pluto like to play with various toys. However, Pluto’s sources of entertainment tends to be far more dangerous and risky, as seen by his affinity towards fire. We see how this obsession has severely affected him when he pulls off his face mask to reveal various severe burns. This exemplifies how harshly things diverged between the two clones. Even something as simple as playing around can go differently depending on their environment. While Jason’s fun is fairly harmless because he gets to play with safe, child-friendly toys and is monitored by his family, Pluto isn’t properly cared for or protected – allowing him to severely injure himself.
Similarly, the arrival of Tethered’s across the entire world reveals each one to share this extreme personality exaggeration of their surface world counterpart. One such example is the Wilson’s family friend Kitty Tayler, an alcoholic and a failed actress who has a contentious relationship with her husband Josh. Though Kitty’s destructive behavior is limited to petty arguments with her spouse and getting plastic surgery to change the parts of herself she doesn’t like, her clone Dahlia engages in much more intense behavior. She’s seen laughing hysterically when her husband (Josh’s counterpart) is murdered, showing how much she loathed and despised him. Dahlia then mutilates her face with a knife, displaying a similar desire to change her body like Kitty’s plastic surgery, albeit through more violent means.
The film follows the Wilson as they frantically try to evade all the murderous attempts by their clone family. As we approach the end, the plot reveals an unexpected twist. Adelaide was actually born a Tethered. When she was a child, Red was the one from the Untethered world, but was knocked unconscious by Adelaide and left in the underground tunnels, with Adelaide assuming her identity. This child, who was then forced to grow up underground with her vocal cords damaged, became resentful and bitter towards the girl who imposed this new life onto her.
The twist, while complicated and hard to explain, is crucial for understanding the core message of Us. While the film is undoubtedly open to several interpretations, a core theme seems to be classism and marginalization. The relationship between the Wilsons and their Tethered counterparts is arguably symbolic of interactions between an upper and (literally) lower class, with the Tethered living in underground tunnels right beneath the Untethered’s feet. Rather than simply say those who live in poor conditions turn into horrific monsters, Us dares to also discuss the effect of nature vs. nurture in economic situations. The original Adelaide, despite being raised in a fairly normal household with the ability to speak, becomes a near-mute savage. Not because she was born a Tethered, but because she was made one from growing up in such horrid conditions. Meanwhile, the “clone” Adelaide who took Adelaide’s position above ground went from a speechless and cruel young girl to a caring mother and wife. Monsters aren’t born, but are instead created in monstrous conditions.
Peele himself commented in agreement with this, stating “One of the central themes in Us is that we can do a good job, collectively, of ignoring the ramifications of privilege. I think it’s the idea that what we feel like we deserve comes, you know, at the expense of someone’s else’s freedom or joy. And the biggest disservice we can do as a faction with a collective privilege, like the United States, is to presume that we deserve it, and that it isn’t luck that has us born where we’re born. For us to have our privilege, someone suffers. That’s where the tethered connection, I think, resonates the most is that those who suffer and those who prosper are two sides of the same coin. You never forget that and we have to fight for the less fortunate.”
This relationship between the Tethered and the Untethered can be applied to modern lower-class politics, such as how those in severe poverty are cast into a vicious cycle of committing crimes or acting violently to survive their environments. Lower-crime areas set its residents up for failure, as they’re raised in such unfair situations. Rather than have any sort of reform system that can give them assistance, they are instead regularly punished by society for the environment that they were born into.
Noticeably, Us doesn’t actually have many visuals featuring those in poverty. We briefly see a homeless man holding an “11:11” sign, a duality number that references a Bible verse on the nature of evil amongst humanity. Other than that, however, there’s not much focus on the real lower class – possibly representing how Adelaide’s family and friends are blinded to the impoverished. Instead, we witness them at their private beach houses, swimming, drinking, relaxing, etc.
Red reveals to Adelaide that the Tethered were created as a failed cloning attempt by the government to dominate people up on the surface. Though this is only briefly mentioned, it alludes to the very creepy factor that both Tethered and Untethered – in some way or another – are being controlled. Though Us only focuses on the struggle between the upper and lower surface, this revelation implies that a common enemy triggered everything in the film. They created a whole race of people and then simply abandoned them, leading this new race to violently rise up against their conditions. The government is never shown confessing to their crimes or directly dealing with the consequences of them either, instead remaining entirely unseen. This is reflective of modern society’s struggle with the power that those in higher socio-economic positions hold over everyone beneath them, regardless if they are impoverished or not. It also speaks to how the upper-class exasperate, or even maintain, a wealth disparity by never addressing or truly trying to help the working class.
The constant reappearance of Hands Across America, a 1980’s charity event, arguably relates to this message of ignoring the lower class, or, even worse, offering a patronizing type of sympathy. Discussing his use of the event, Peele commented “On the one hand, [Hands Across America is] a beautiful thing. Right? We’re all going to get together. We’re all going to hold hands. And somehow, that’s going to cure hunger. The illusion that we’re contributing to something that actually is making change, as opposed to something that kind of makes us feel better and absolves us of our responsibility to enact actual change.”
It’s a charity that, in hindsight, did little to change society because no one really took much action. While those who participated in Hands Across America can claim they care for the needy (and maybe they do to a certain extent), they were unwilling to make the sacrifices to actually do anything radical. This is reflected in Adelaide’s character as well (who originally wore the shirt with the charity logo actually), and the “false” care she has for her Tethered family. She’s repeatedly shown being sympathetic towards her clone relatives, as she understands where they come from and how awful that must’ve been. She gets why they’re struggling so hard. However, she’s still unwilling to give up what she unfairly took and will murder the Tethered family to preserve the life she has now.
Us is a complicated film that has much to say about modern poverty in America, as well as other themes like destiny, false-messiahs, privilege and corruption. Though its message about the struggle between lower and upper class families is a very cynical one with no real solution, it’s depicted in a delightfully unconventional and creative way – effectively highlighting the little-discussed issue of violent environments creating violent populations, rather than vice-versa. What’s deeply appreciable about Us is how Peele manages to discuss convoluted political themes without ever bringing actual politics into his story, allowing audiences of all political spectrums to watch the film without associating it with one particular party or mentality.