The Ties That Bind US

Watch Us before reading this.

The first victim in most horror movies is communication. Everyone ignores the crazy old guy with the ghost story that’s going to become mortally relevant by the end of the first act. Landlines go dead, cell phones inexplicably lose all service.

Jordan Peele’s new film, Us, depicts a world in which people are either losing, or have already lost, that ability to communicate with one another. The central Wilson family, comprised of mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), father Gabe (Winston Duke), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex) are not ‘unhappy’ together, but the pre-terror stretches of Us suggest that they have gradually become strangers to one another. Gabe is too preoccupied with his own material wants to pay much attention to what his wife and children are saying, Zora can barely be bothered to look up from her phone long enough to hold a conversation, and Adelaide and Jason are both…off, somehow, with canyons of inner thoughts and concerns that they can’t, or won’t, express in words. Adelaide admits during one early conversation that she has always had trouble talking (more on that in a bit), which we the audience come to understand stems from a childhood trauma when she wandered into a funhouse and came face to face with a little girl who looked exactly like her. Jason, meanwhile, is deeply introspective for a child his age and is most comfortable when he has his werewolf mask over his face.

Peele contrasts this faltering social order with the central monsters of the film: “The Tethered.” The underground-based, murderous, crimson-clad doppelgangers are (mostly) entirely non-verbal, but they move with ruthless efficiency, simple hand gestures from “Red” (Nyong’o) coordinating attacks like a conductor ably maneuvering a complex orchestra.

But there are bonds within the Wilson family that run as deep as those between the Tethered.

While Peele as writer and director is careful to make sure that the relationships between each member of the family are well-defined and clearly expressed, the greatest importance is unquestionably placed on the bond between Adelaide and Jason. While basic communication seems to stymie almost every human character, for reasons ranging from social media to passive aggressive power moves to social miscues to simply not having the words in your arsenal needed to communicate the deep emotional unease you might be feeling, while all these methods break down, mother and son are able to understand and intuit each other’s actions. When Jason is confounded by the lyrical meaning of “I Got 5 on It,” his mother gently guides him to focus not on the words but on the rhythm, and Peele’s camera captures the moment when Jason’s confusion falls away and he begins to feel the song. Later in the film, it is Jason who discovers how to tune into the rhythm of the Tethered, re-establishing the link that allows him to control his toasted-up doppelganger, ‘Pluto’.

As Us progresses, its focus zeroes in on Adelaide and Jason at the expense of Gabe and Zora. At first it seems like sloppy storytelling, to build a film around a four-person ensemble in which half of that ensemble is rendered obsolete during the climax. As Adelaide plunges into the underground lair of the Tethered in pursuit of ‘Red’ after she abducts Jason, Peele can barely be bothered to check in on Gabe and Zora, not even bothering to put them in any kind of contrasting peril. Father and daughter hang back while all the emotional, narrative, and thematic primacy is given to mother and son.

It’s because mother and son ‘get’ each other. They are intuitive, emotional beings whereas Gabe and Zora are blinded by their innate pulls towards reason and rationality. Which is a fine quality to have, unless you are suddenly experiencing something pretty goddamn irrational.

Throughout the later stretches of the film, Peele’s camera and the actors’ performances emphasize that there is something…off about how Adelaide and Jason respond to the invasion of the Tethered. For starters, Adelaide never seems, like, especially surprised that (mostly) mute clones of herself, her husband, and her children have appeared one night, all stabby. Nyong’o (who is brilliant in these roles) communicates volumes of meaning in the way she interacts with the Tethered, especially ‘Red’, but the subtle wrongness of her reactions (and subsequent actions) contributes to the sensation of the film as a waking nightmare, so ably conjured by Peele and collaborators like cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (who also shot the similarly dream-logic infused It Follows) and composer Michael Abels.

Jason is the only one who seems to bear witness to this wrongness. When Adelaide succumbs to almost-feral rage battling one of the Tethered, reduced to growling, blood-splattered madness, it’s Jason who sees it. And, again, his reaction is not what one might expect from a child seeing his mother soak herself with clone-innards. As played by Alex (a very charming young actor), Jason’s not exactly ‘happy’ to see his mother this way, but he seems neither afraid nor surprised that she is capable of this.

This thread running almost unnoticed and unremarked upon throughout the movie comes to a head in the final moments. As Adelaide drives her family, bloody but alive and intact, away from the scene of the (closest) massacre, Peele reveals the ugly twist that snaps the entire film into focus: The Adelaide we have been watching the entire movie is not the original, but is instead the Tethered version, who years ago somehow broke free of the enslaving mental link and switched places with her surface-dwelling counterpart, leaving the real Adelaide trapped in the underground world until she too broke free of of her programming and began to plot a revolution, becoming the terrifying ‘Red’.

But the true power and purpose of that reveal doesn’t come until after Peele has finished laying out his twist. As mania flutters over Nyong’o’s features, she manages to bring herself under control. That’s when she, and we, notice that Jason has been watching her all this time, with that same curious expression on his face. As she smiles at him, Jason nods…and slides the werewolf mask down over his face.

Now, there are a number of ways to interpret this moment. Some fans have already begun tying themselves into elaborate knots to explain it, including a growing fan theory that proposes that Jason was also replaced with his Tethered copy at some point in the past (a theory that makes no sense even by the extremely loose rules of Us).

No, Peele’s drop-the-mic moment isn’t about a neat narrative knot being properly tied, but about the emotional bond between mother and son that has quietly become the spine of the entire movie. Jason putting the mask on isn’t an “Aha!” plot moment. It’s a way for a child to show his mother that he knows her, that he understands her, that he accepts her. Jason putting the mask on is his way of his telling Adelaide that he knows she is a monster, and that’s OK because he is too.

Us is a film with a lot going on both in its text and subtext. Arguably too much, if you belong to the dissenters who believe the film to be overstuffed and sloppy versus the laser focus of Peele’s debut, Get Out. And I don’t know that those dissenters are ‘wrong’, as it’s fair to say that Us often comes across a grab-bag of nightmarish thoughts and imagery, held together less by thematic cohesion than narrative momentum, outstanding performances, and Peele’s own confidence.

What holds it together for me is this central thematic concept of some bonds transcending language. It’s there in how the Tethered relate to each other, and it’s there in the way that humans and Tethered are…you know…tethered together. And in the relationship between Adelaide and Jason, Peele illustrates how even in a family, there are individuals who can know each other better than anyone else, including other members of the same family.

Us is about a lot of things, but when I think back on all that occurred, and all that it meant, I come back to that moment in the car. To a woman coming to grips with the knowledge of all the terrible things she has done, the terrible thing she is, and realizing that her son knows all those same things, knows those things are a part of himself as well…and embraces it.

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