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‘Us’ Explained: Peeling Back Jordan Peele’s Layered Horror Movie Theories and Symbolism


Jordan Peele's Us Movie Explained

Jordan Peele’s Us Movie Explained

I finally got to see the horror movie ‘Us’ on Saturday night and I guarantee it will be endlessly studied in film classes ’til the end of time. Finally, my degree in Film & Media Studies pays off… sorta.

The first time I saw the trailer for ‘Us’, I got all tingly. First of all, the eerie version of ‘I Got 5 On It‘. Goosebumps. Not goosepimples because that’s gross. Who knew that would be a clue about the movie’s big plot reveal? (Yeah, I hooked ya. Keep reading)

Second, Jordan Peele crushed it with Get Out and his edition of Twilight Zone has received positive reviews. So, we’re in good hands…. across … AMERICA!

Had it not been for our baby daughter, the high cost of a babysitter, and our cancellation of our MoviePass, I would’ve seen it in theaters. Looks like it didn’t really need my help, as it grossed more than $70 million domestically its first weekend, a record for an original horror movie, and the second highest among original live-actions.

‘Us’ is Peele’s second feature. The former sketch comedian knocked it out of the park writing and directing ‘Get Out’, a movie that made a statement about race relations between blacks and whites in the U.S. and how slavery still exists, albeit in a different form, today. So, my mind automatically thought ‘Us’ would be a movie about relations between black Americans. The message would have to be ‘we need to stop tearing each other down and prop each other up’. Or the internal struggle / conflict black Americans feel with their inner demons personified as the doppelgängers in red jumpsuits carrying scissors.

Well, I was wrong.

The movie focuses on a black family who goes to their vacation home, visits the beach, and encounters their exact duplicates or clones who are out to kill them. Chaos ensues. Not just for them but for everyone else. And there’s a ton of theories and interpretations.

***SPOILERS AHEAD**

The movie opened with some text about tunnels and it threw us off. I thought about Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad (which could apply considering The History Channel once released a special on it called America: The Story of Us).

Then we have a commercial for Hands Across America and we’re even more off-kilter. Then we have a slow zoom-out from a rabbit’s eye and we were at full discombobulation. Apparently, Peele finds rabbits to be creepy. Prior to that shot, I would’ve disagreed, but after the involuntary staring contest, my man is accurate. Rabbits are wack.

The symbolism in this movie is on the level of The Shining. In fact, there were a few nods to the Stanley Kubrick classic:

1) The overhead helicopter / drone shot tracking the family’s car through the woods.

B) The twins.

III) The repeated usage of 11:11, 11-11 (similar to 237 in The Shining).

I haven’t looked but there are probably dozens of YouTube video essays breaking down all the iconography. My money’s on a comprehensive documentary interviewing the maniacs who did a deep dive on this flick a la Room 237. To me, the choice to give the Tethered (the clones) scissors in their homicidal bid was brilliant because the dupes want to cut the connection between themselves and their above-ground counterparts.

I didn’t fully understand the brown, fingerless glove each Tethered clone wore on their right hand but it was a nod to Michael Jackson. First and foremost, Michael Jackson can rot in hell. You can say pedophilia is a disease that can’t be controlled and all that garbage, fine. Me personally, no thanks. So, it was tough seeing Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o’s character) put on a Thriller shirt when her dad wins the carnival prize. However, it shows the duality / dichotomy of the ’80s. Us ’80s kids and those born post-80s often look back on the ’80s as a rad, fun decade but under the facade of the ’80s pop and preen was grunge and grime.

Jackson’s Thriller was such a phenomenon for so long but then Jackson becomes an actual monster and you’re torn. You remember how fun Thriller was to watch and re-enact but that joy is soured by the reality of his crimes.

Same holds true to a certain extent for Hands Across America. On the surface, it appeared to be this extremely ambitious, wholly optimistic, and seemingly impossible movement that brought a lot of people together but as Peele has pointed out, what good did it really do? It was just this big, fruitless gesture.

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I vaguely remember Hands Across America because I was 5 when it happened but from what I’ve read, it was a major bust. Something like $39 million raised but only $15 million went to help the poor and underprivileged fight hunger. Not a great ratio. But better than nothing.

The more I saw the movie’s title ‘Us’, the more I suspected it could be interpreted as “U.S” = United States and that was confirmed when Adelaide asks the duplicate family who they are and Red (Adelaide’s copy) states, “We are Americans”. The movie is a metaphor or analogy for classism in America. You have the uber rich upper class (Kitty and Josh), the middle-class better off than some (the Wilsons), and then the lower class (Tethered clones underground). There’s the above-the-ground (above the poverty line) and underground (below the poverty line).

The other take is the movie is an analogy for slavery / oppression of black people, that ‘Us’ is a further extension of ‘Get Out’. The best explanation comes from this Reddit thread, which I pulled from:

“a long time ago people came down here to make a system designed to control the people above.” = slavery

“But the system failed” = end of slavery

“But we were left here and we became shadows of what the people at the top were doing” = modern slavery which is control through commercials, ads, marketing, social media, etc. we are still slaves to a system meant to be controlled by those ‘above us’.

The untethering is many things, it is Us, taking a hold of our modern slavery and stopping it. It is Us taking ahold of our racism, bigotry, politics and more and getting rid of our attachment to the system.

Lupita Nyong’o definitely deserves an Oscar nomination and, at this point, the Oscar win. I’ll admit her voice threw me off at first and I thought, well, this is a bit extreme, just another actress trying to make her mark and be ultra dramatic and different but nope, there was a legit reason for her voice and she nailed it. Also, her crying was even creepier and disturbing that Daniel Kaluuya when he was about to enter The Sunken Place.

It felt like Winston Duke was doing a spot-on impression of Jordan Peele. The glasses and his voice were Peele-esque.

I’ll briefly mention the Jason and Pluto switch theory. Some think Jason and Pluto were switched at a young age because Jason can control Pluto and because Jason gives his mom — the Tethered clone — a look of acknowledgment before pulling down his werewolf mask. OR, hear me out, the above ground people were able to control the underground people and his mom is his mom. The girl who was abducted and held captive underground, though she is the ‘original’, isn’t his mom. He’s part ‘clone’ so why would he view his mom as anything else?

Why didn’t Zora control her clone? That’s a superb question that I just don’t have time to answer because my life expectancy is 73.

Finally, there are almost 80 pieces of trivia for ‘Us’ from IMDb but these are my favorites:

Several key scenes of The Lost Boys (1987) took place on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This is referenced in ‘Us’ when Adelaide’s mother says, “You know, they’re shooting a movie over there by the carousel.”

“In the beginning scene where the ‘Hands Across America’ commercial is playing, VHS copies of C.H.U.D. and The Goonies can be seen on the shelf to the left of the TV. C.H.U.D. is about underground creatures and The Goonies takes place primarily in underground tunnels.”

“In keeping with the film’s theme of duality and the concept of two identical parts making up one whole, one of the VHS tapes seen near the television at the beginning of the film is The Man with Two Brains, starring Steve Martin.”

Re: Adelaide wearing Michael Jackson’s Thriller tee — “As a child, Corey Feldman was once a member of Jackson’s close friendship circle, and was also one of the stars of both ‘The Lost Boys’ (1986) and ‘The Goonies’ (1985). Both films are referenced in ‘Us’“.

That Thriller shirt also foreshadows the ending — the twist in Thriller is Michael Jackson is actually a werewolf as he flashes an evil smile at the camera while Vincent Price cackles. The twist in ‘Us’ is Adelaide is actually a Tethered clone (viewed as evil) as she flashes a smile at her son.

The word on Zora’s hoodie means “rabbit” in Vietnamese. This has a couple meanings. One, that she is the prey and she will be hunted by her doppelgänger, who feasts on rabbits underground. Two is a little more of a stretch but, I think of The Tortoise and the Hare, in which the Hare is represented as a fast runner, which Zora is.
I Got 5 On It – I struggled with its significance. Mostly because I’m a middle class suburban white boy. Turns out “I Got 5 On It” is a phrase meaning to pay half of a dime bag with another person. In ‘Us’, the people above ground split a soul with their clone below ground. They’re essentially going halfsies on their essence. Meanwhile, 14-year-old freshman me thought it meant reserving your empty seat for 5 minutes while you went to take a piss.

“The son’s name, Jason, is a reference to Friday the 13th’s villain, Jason, who also wears a mask.”
“At the beginning of the film, when Zora locks Jason in the closet there is a board game in the back called Mouse Trap. Foreshadowing where Jason would trap his doppelgänger later in the film.”
“The Wilsons’ toy closet includes the game Guess Who?, a classic board game requiring players to match the identical face of the card chosen by the other player.”
‘The Bible verse that continuously appears in the film (Jeremiah 11:11) reads: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, 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”.’
‘In addition to Jeremiah 11:11 being seen written on a sign twice, the numbers 11:11 appear…
  • When Gabe is watching a baseball game on TV, the announcer says that the game is tied 11-11.
  • When Addie and Jason are talking in his room, the digital clock reads 11:11 pm.
  • A carnival worker in 1986 and one of the twins in the present day both wear a T-shirt for the band Black Flag, the logo of which consists of four vertical black bars that resemble the number 1111.
  • And again at the end of the movie when the ambulance is driving down the windy back road the camera pans out and shows the ambulance number 1111 on top of it.’
  • ‘When the Wilson family visits the beach, they are shown in a bird’s eye view shot walking across the sand with long shadows that resemble the numbers ‘1111’, a reference to Jeremiah 11:11, the bible verse that appears multiple times throughout the film. Their long shadows also allude their doppelgängers, or ‘shadows’, who appear later in the film.’

While ‘Us’ didn’t have the same initial impact as ‘Get Out’, it’s definitely worth a second watch and should stoke anticipation for Peele’s next gem.

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  1. […] I don’t enjoy peeling back the layers. I had a mixed but somewhat favorable reaction after my initial viewing of ‘Us’. It wasn’t until I did some digging online that I really appreciated the level of thought […]

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