This review contains spoilers.
Get Out was a smash hit on all metrics. The movie earned $255 million on a $4.5 million budget and it wowed casual fans, horror aficionados, and stuffy critics alike due to its expert blend of tried and true horror tropes and an adept level of social commentary that ties the picture together. Get Out also solidified writer/director Jordan Peele as one of the premiere horror storytellers of our time after a long and successful career in comedy. His well-deserved Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay broke barriers for an institution which typically rewards standard drama storytelling over specialized genre fare, and it drew even more attention to his knack for threading symbolism and allegory through a tightly constructed, self-contained horror story. Throughout the pre-release hype for Us, audiences were constantly reminded that this movie would have an even greater emphasis on horror than Peele’s freshman outing, and the film’s trailers expertly presented the terrifying tropes of the home invasion, the fear of the other, and ghastly sharp objects front and center. All of this build up led audiences to believe that Us would contain- above all- a great horror narrative. What we ended up with- however- is a movie that relies much more heavily on allegory than story, and the story suffers as a result… even in spite of phenomenal performances by a stellar ensemble cast.
The reason Get Out resonated with so many audiences is that, at its core, the movie functioned exclusively as a horror movie. Its layers are omnipresent and they’re wonderful… but when you peel all of those layers away the audience is left with a classic conflict and a lean, coherent plot. The movie played just as well to Friday night audiences as it did to literary scholars, and Peele left it up to the viewer to decide how deeply he or she wanted to dive into the movie’s symbolism and subtext. Such a feat is a Shakespearean undertaking, and Peele made it seem effortless with Get Out. Us– on the other hand- tries to tell a good story, but it’s so bogged down by its lofty allegorical goals that the story itself rarely functions on a literal level. I don’t blame Peele if he felt the need to maintain his track record of striking symbolism and dual messages… his achievement with Get Out directly led to his reputation as a master of the genre. However, the balance that made Get Out a success got lost in the shuffle during the production of Us.
Whenever a movie comes out with heavy-handed subtext, there’s an urge to dismiss those who are critical of the movie’s effectiveness with an all-encompassing “You just don’t get it.” Before I continue, let me assure you that I have a tendency to love allegorical movies… even ones that are far more pretentious than Us (just check out my review of mother!) and I get it. Jeremiah 11:11 is about the end of the world, it’s a display of God’s anger over his peoples’ forgetfulness about how they got there, and there’s duality in the numbers at the end of it. I get it. Us is spelled like U.(nited) S.(tates). I got it even more when the doppelgangers said, “We’re Americans.” The movie is really about our checkered history of ignoring and exploiting the poor and homeless in order to enable affluence and decadence for the other half of the population. The bloody and/or dead homeless people on the beach ensured that I got it right away. And the twist? The one that’s supposed to show that either Adelaide-the original one or the tethered one- could have succeeded if given the opportunity to live on the surface? I got it! But here’s what I didn’t get: why go so heavy-handed with these allegorical messages at the expense of the story, especially when the allegorical messages aren’t completely expressed or fully realized?
The twist at the end of the movie is classic M. Night Shyamalan with a dash of social commentary, but it doesn’t work on either level. No one gasped in my theater during the grand reveal on Thursday previews (come to think of it, nobody clapped at the end of the movie, either). Frankly, the twist didn’t matter much to the narrative, and its allegorical message is shaky. Consider this: if protagonist Adelaide was really the tethered Adelaide, then it was the woman from the surface who had to bring meaningful change to the tethered (she even says, when we still believe she’s tethered, that the rest of the tethered thought she was special and she was the one meant to organize them). Peele’s allegory accidentally becomes the story of the savior who is an other rather than the story of exact equals who mobilize for their spot on the surface. Such an interpretation directly contradicts the rest of the film’s message that it’s opportunity that equals happiness and success.
When you examine the twist purely from the perspective of story, it doesn’t hold up any better. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to the viewer which Adelaide is the family woman we are supposed to be rooting for because we view the entire film from her perspective and from the perspective of the family she was responsible for creating and nurturing. She is the protagonist no matter where she comes from. Her son’s knowing look at the end doesn’t matter much because this is the same woman who raised his sister and him from birth (Let’s not even get into the theory that the son was also swapped at some point because there simply isn’t enough on-screen evidence to suggest it; and even if he was swapped, he’s playing the same game as mom is by trying to fit in with what might be the last surface family on the face of the earth). The “newly-revealed to be tethered all along” Adelaide’s look at the end doesn’t mean she’s going to unexpectedly turn on her family, or that she’s somehow the secret villain of the movie, so the twist doesn’t have the same kind of gut punch that other twist endings achieve with audiences on a surface level.
These criticisms can be viewed as nitpicking, but the film’s allegorical structure encourages the viewer to do this kind of digging, and the absence of a coherent story leaves us with nothing but the allegory to ponder. And when a movie is written in such a way, the symbolism had better constantly hold up to such scrutiny. Otherwise, you’re left with a story that is unsatisfying for a general audience and simply mind boggling to the “plot hole generation” of movie criticism. How did these underlings coordinate the mass creation of red jumpsuits and fancy shears for their takeover of the surface world? A more fleshed out story could address this and improve the allegorical meaning of the movie. A couple of scenes of shady government officials experimenting on the tethered with shears in bizarre and unethical experiments would have gone a long way in both establishing why they’re available in abundance underground and solidifying the allegory of the government’s storied (some rumored, others documented) practices of literal and metaphorical experimentation on the homeless population (through programs, policies, laws, etc.). The tethered wear dirty old street clothes in the eighties when they’re still under government control. Showing them in their red uniforms at that time would have both explained where the jumpsuits came from and further enhanced the metaphor of these costumes being government-assigned, prison-like wardrobe meant to erase identity and separate them from the opportunity to individuality afforded to the surface dwellers. Going by the story alone, the viewer is left to deduce that the creation of the jumpsuits and the shears was a part of the tethereds’ plan to take over the surface. Nobody was suspicious of all of those Amazon Prime orders being dropped off to manhole covers? Again, it’s easy to come back with a “it doesn’t matter how they got them!” But it kind of does matter if you want the movie to make sense on a story level. And the examples I’ve outlined above show how a few changes could simultaneously improve the metaphor and the story.
In Get Out, we’re rooting for Chris because he is a fully realized character, firmly established as the protagonist of the story. Conversely, the movie clearly presents his oppressive in-laws as the villains based on their grotesque thoughts and actions. On an allegorical level, the Armitage family’s violations of Chris are a metaphorical retelling of the disgusting real-life history of white America’s obsession with black bodies and exploitation of African American people. We want to see Chris beat the odds and win by the end of the story, and his success marks a literal and metaphorical turning of the tide. On a surface level, Chris becomes the hero as he defies the boogeymen like the horror heroes and final girls who’ve come before him. Moviegoers can’t help but throw their popcorn in the air and cheer when he exacts his bloody revenge, and film studies types can pontificate cathartic release in response to the symbolism behind Chris reclaiming autonomy over his own body. Because the story and allegory of Us is muddled, there is no such balance of satisfaction on both of these crucial levels. The Wilson family are the protagonists of Us, but they’re also unknowingly complicit in the oppression of the tethered. The allegory of the film asserts that we are guilty as a society of ignoring our inherent knowledge of the oppression that makes the comfort of our lives possible. At the very least, the WIlsons are just as guilty when they ignore the poverty right in front of their eyes as they experience their fancy beach vacation. Yet, the conventions of the story have us rooting for the Wilsons to overthrow their tethered counterparts right up to the end of the movie, and no one in the family ever seems to understand the implications of what happened and why it happened. At worst, these series of events almost play out like Get Out, but told from the perspective of the Armitage family. In addition, the switcheroo with Adelaide further complicates those connotations, because she’s one of them who lives as one of us for decades and then ultimately destroys one of us. Effective horror movies thrive on a strong sense of right and wrong, of good and evil. Us’ literal and allegorical twists and turns make it impossible for the audience to know who they should feel good about rooting for.
These mixed symbolic messages either impede the viewer from fully grasping Peele’s allegorical statements, or they reveal that these messages needed to be further cleaned up in the script phase before advancing to principal photography. Even the most steadfast responder to my critique with the classic, “You just didn’t get it!” line can’t argue that the symbolism and allegory of Get Out is significantly better communicated and much more concrete in expressing unwavering ideas. Us is a hodgepodge of ideas that make it pretty clear overall what Peele’s message is, but they don’t hold up to scrutiny beyond a most basic comprehension of their metaphorical significance.
The greatest disappointment in Us’s problem with balancing story and allegory is the fact that the movie features some excellent performances which often get lost in the shuffle of the big picture. Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke are as excellent in the film as they come across in the trailer. Nyong’o’s performance is initially timid and restrained, and her demeanor gradually shifts to adjust to the chaos of the movie. Duke plays the quintessential dad, and his fictional kids usually only see the goofiness in his attempts at coolness. Child actors often spell doom for movies- especially on horror productions- but Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex deliver impressive and believable performances throughout. The Wilson family feels like a real family and it’s a testament to the actors’ performances that the tethered versions seem so radically different when we finally meet them. It’s easy to forget that these are actors playing two different roles and the dynamic is well executed whenever the protagonists come face to face with their doppelgangers.
Given these expert performances, it’s baffling how poorly the tension builds throughout the film as the physical risk to the Wilson family escalates. Again, I chalk this up to the reliance on allegory over story. The movie feels too long at just about two hours, yet its necessary horror scenes seem hastily shot and too quickly executed to achieve their intended effect. I literally must have blinked during the moment where Gabe Wilson defeats his doppelganger, and I missed exactly how it happened. A little more build up would have gone a long way. After ramping up the seriousness of the threat that the tethered pose to their counterparts, the Wilson kids take out three of them with a few simple swings of a blunt object. I’m not advocating for buckets of blood and minutes of explicit gore; but these kinds of moments are the ones that tie an effective horror movie together, and Us’ hesitance to embrace them means that the movie suffers as a horror film. The effectiveness of Us’ horror moments are further complicated by comic relief that is sometimes unfunny or uninspired, and each comedic misfire comes across as overcompensating or a lack of commitment to a straight-up horror scene. I wanted this movie to scare me like its first trailer did, but once all of the mysteries of the preview are explicitly defined just moments after the tethered knock down the Wilson’s front door, the scenes which follow can’t recover from the loss of the dramatic tension of the unknown.
Us is not a bad movie. The performances by the talented cast are worth the price of admission alone, and it’s certainly a valuable watch if you’ve been following Peele’s important career with interest. But Us was supposed to be a great movie. It was supposed to represent the next step from a filmmaker who blew everyone’s minds with Get Out. Instead, Us is so transfixed on making an allegorical statement that it falls short of the perfect balance of story and allegory that Peele demonstrated he’s capable of with Get Out, and therefore it doesn’t quite meet the loftiest of expectations which inevitably arose from such a distinct debut.