“Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.” -Jeremiah 11:11
I should probably tell you up front that I…don’t like horror movies. That feeling of being scared — y’know, jumping-out-of-your-movie-seat-at-a-pop scared? It doesn’t do it for me. I’m scared of enough things in real life without adding fictional things to the list for my mere recreation. So when I say that Jordan Peele’s Us was worth every second of ear and eye-covering horror, know that I mean it.
Now a lot of reviewers have written about Us. so rather than spending this review echoing the points on which I agree (Lupita Nyong’o’s brilliant performance, Mike Gioulakis’ haunting and poetic cinematography, and of course Jordan Peele’s brilliant writing), let’s talk about what I think most reviewers have missed…the meaning of Us and its monster the tethered specifically. So obviously…spoiler alert.
In review after review of the film, critics seem, to put it mildly, confused by the film’s ending, and at first blush that’s understandable. As a mythology “the Tethered” don’t make a lot of sense: They were a science experiment and then someone just…left them there? In a mall full of rabbits? How did they survive? Is their underground an exact copy of the overground? How were they able to escape? Where did they get all those jumpsuits? But if we let our grasp of the literal go I’ll be so bold as to say I think we will find a meaning behind Us and the Tethered that is uniquely fit for our times.
And that makes sense. Jordan Peele is a REACTIVE film maker. He got his start as a comedian, and that matters. The core of comedy is understanding. If you don’t understand something you don’t know why it’s funny. And Peele’s gift with horror is the other equally sharp side of that wit. The way Get Out exposed the civilized mask that white supremacy wears was a perfect product of post-Obama backlash, as was Donald Trump’s election, but Us is a movie about living through that backlash. It’s about the consequences of the villains and monsters of our time being…well…us.
There’s been this itchy thought in the back of my mind since 2016 and I’ve written about it here and there but Us kind of scratched that itch, so bear with me. Growing up, my dad had a bunch of friends who just seemed obsessed with Vietnam. They read books about it, they talked about it, and it was the foundation of their anti-government loonyness. I didn’t get it then. But I think I do now. See, when I was a kid I thought it was just about war, but lots of societies and cultures have war. Every American generation has had a war so, I thought, what were these guys freaking out about? But now I realize that it wasn’t about the war…it was about being the bad guys. We KNOW that our government is tearing children from their parents’ arms and locking them in cages so cold they die. We know that there have been thousands of sexual assaults in these facilities, that the government is tracking these people’s menstrual cycles but not giving them pads and tampons, that we are holding many of them indefinitely and that our highest court just ruled that to be perfectly legal, and you and I have done…nothing. Nothing that matters. I mean look: It’s happening right now and i’m here…blogging. When I lived in New York I was a 30-minute subway ride away from an ICE detention center, and we all should have marched down there, kicked down the door, and freed those people, no matter the cost, because it’s the right thing to do and because history has taught us what happens when we don’t. But we didn’t. What drove my dad and his friends crazy wasn’t that bad guys exist…it’s that they were the bad guys. Is there a more perfect representation of the horror that elicits than dark and murderous dopplegangers? I think not.
A LOT of writers have pointed out that the monsters in our stories point to our deeper fears. From the moment there were monsters, someone pointed out how much they looked like Us. When society needs to express its fear of progressives, vampires serve as their Jungian representatives: eternally young; sexually promiscuous; queer or queer coded; and, of course, literally living off others. And Zombies serve a similar purpose on the other side: They are mindless consumers acting in hoards, and while vampires almost always exist in and are of a functioning world, zombies almost always END the world; while vampires represent the jungian fear of youth and change, zombies represent the fear of the older by personifying death. To me, the Tethered are a variation on the zombie for 2019 meant to prod at what might be progressives’ greatest weakness…our pride.
As Ian Danskin points out in his brilliant video essay “Always a Bigger Fish” liberalism is, at its core, based on democracy, on equality, and conservatism is based on hierarchy. Except deep down, conservatives don’t believe us. They believe that liberals also believe in hierarchy and just use the excuse of liberalism to put themselves and the people they value higher up the pyramid.
And secretly? I think we’re afraid they’re right. If you’re a liberal you are numerically better educated, healthier, less likely to divorce, and richer than your conservative counterpart AND your ideas are better, but admitting this is inherently illiberal, anti-democratic, and unequal. If there were more conservatives in this country than liberals, liberal ideas would still be correct and therefore…kind of…incorrect
And this inner conflict is what the Tethered represent and poke at so effectively. They’re, pardon the pun, uniformly red. Their lives are a terrifying mockery of ours. The warped story Nyong’o’s counterpart (aptly named “Red”) tells in the Tethered’s very first appearance in the film is of a little girl and her shadow. While the little girl eats, the shadow eats raw bloody rabbit. When the little girl gets gifts, her shadow is given sharp monstrous things that cut her when she touches them. This is the liberal fear — liberals sit in cushy universities while conservatives work farms and mines by the sweat of their brow. That we have the privilege of liberalism because of a conservative’s suffering and the Tethered — the rising, unseen, unexpected tide of red — are our just deserts for our hubris. Their weapons are the very symbol of division and separation…golden scissors.
And the peak of this…is the so-called mission of the Tethered. Unlike zombies the Tethered have a goal. Led by a mad, destructive, opposite version of our protagonist (is there a better description of Trump?) they kill and hurt for no real reason or purpose. The cruelty is the point. As Red says when asked what they want, “we want to take our time.” They want to kill and hurt us because they feel cheated, because they feel it is their time, and then they want to…join hands.
In the last montage of the movie, as we watch the rise of Red, we see that she made her “hands across America” shirt a kind of religion for the Tethered. And Hands Across America is a fitting metaphor. It was a largely ineffective publicity stunt dreamed up by a TV director that absolutely failed at its goal, it didn’t link people coast to coast, it was poorly managed, and while it did raise 34 million dollars only 15 million went to charity. It is a fantastic example of a bad idea being applied badly, and it is the religion of the Tethered; as Red says, “Something the whole world would have to pay attention to.” And…they succeed. That’s where the movie leaves us. Our protagonists survive. The last shots of the movie are dedicated to the countless innocents who have been murdered, and then their killers, united and proud, standing hand in hand, news helicopters circling them as they build a wall.
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