It’s only fitting that there are two ways to look at Us. In one sense, writer/director Jordan Peele’s latest original smash is a straight-up terrifying horror film centering around the family (led by Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke) fighting a foursome of doppelgängers during an ill-fated beach vacation. But Peele also has a lot to say in terms of who we are as human beings and Americans. Now that you’re breathing again and back to a resting heart rate, let’s delve into the latter. Much like Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out, multiple viewings are required to catch all the wink-winks and to get a firm handle on the message. Here are 10 answers to your burning questions. And only light spoilers ahead — Peele would slay me with scissors if I revealed all the twists!
1. What’s the deal with Hands Across America?
It’s for real. Hands Across America was a benefit event for the homeless staged in May 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for 15 minutes along a path across the contiguous United States. (Do yourself a favor and check out the cheeseball music video on YouTube. “It’s this idea of American optimism and hope, and Ronald Reagan-style-we-can-get-things-done-if-we-just-hold-hands,” Peele recently explained. “It’s a great gesture — but you can’t actually cure hunger and all that.” But the charity coincided with more scarring images: “That was when I was afraid of horror movies. That’s when the Challenger disaster happened. There are several 80s images that conjure up a feeling of both bliss and innocence, and the darkest of the dark.” To wit, in the real HAA commercial that airs in Us’ opening moments, the hand-holders are illustrated in red, and the announcer brags that the Americans will all be “tethered together.” That’s what English teachers refer to as a foreshadow.
2. Soooo, the tethered people. Who are they supposed to represent?
The scissors-equipped doppelgängers dressed in red jumpsuits that dwell underneath the ground aren’t necessarily evil. Duke told audiences at SXSW, “They finally had an opportunity to see the light and see the sky and see for the first time. You have all the things I want. You get to express all the things I desire. They’re coming from place of need while the Wilsons are coming from place of comfort.” Peele’s take? “It’s personal for every individual. The movie is this country. When I decided to write it, I was stricken with the fact that we are in a time when we fear the other, whether it’s the mysterious invader that wants to kill us, take a job, votes the other way. We point the finger. But the monster maybe has our face. The evil is us.” Again, Peele tips off the audience early on: At the family breakfast table, young Jason tells his father that when you’re pointing the finger at someone you’re really pointing three fingers back at yourself.
3. Fine, then why aren’t the tethered people a 100 percent physical match with their above-ground counterparts?
Because they’re not the same. Peele asked his makeup crew to make the doppelgängers look different than their counterparts because they’ve experienced different — and more torturous — lives in the shadows. More specifically, he wanted them to resemble “subtle vampires.” (This is per the Us production notes.) Makeup head Scott Wheeler also modified the look of each Wilson family doppelgänger in ways that helped reflect his or her character because the doppelgängers care less about/have less access to personal care. Patriarch Gabe, for instance, has a nicely groomed beard. His doppelgänger has this biblical beard that he’s let grow out.
4. Why red? Because it’s the color of blood?
Not quite. Here is Peele’s official explanation: “The idea of being able to utilize a flash of red going by in the darkness to signify your monster was exciting, and it carries with it this connotation of an escaped prisoner or patient.” There’s a cultural reason as well. As Us’ story launches in 1986, the color is a nod to classic 80s frights such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” jacket, Michael Myers’ jumpsuit from Halloween and Freddy Krueger’s switchblade glove.
5. The scissors must be symbolic too, no?
Duh. It harkens back to the duality theme. Scissors can be used in ways that are both mundane and useful (i.e., making an arts and crafts project) and terrifying (i.e., a stabbing weapon). Nyong’o does both in Us. Even the shape of scissors has a duality. Look at the finger openings and how they resemble two heads. Notice how they spread apart. Now you’ll never look at them the same way again.
6. What does that Jeremiah 11:11 passage mean?
Young Adelaide sees a homeless man holding up a sign that reads Jeremiah 11:11 just before she enters that hall of mirrors on the boardwalk. It’s the opposite of a throwaway scene. Aside from the obvious numerical twinning, the Bible passage is deeply meaningful to the theme of the film. “Therefore, this is what the Lord says: I am going to bring calamity upon them, and they will not escape. Though they beg for mercy, I will not listen to their cries.” Peele places the numbers throughout the film, from the digital read on Jason’s alarm clock in his bedroom to the score of the San Francisco Giants’ baseball game that Gabe watches before the home invasion. And that Hands Across America clip on the TV in that opening scene? Listen carefully and hear the newscast promo, “next at 7 on 11.”
7. Does Us exist in the same universe as Get Out?
“I can not confirm or deny a connection to Get Out,” Peele recently told a prying interviewer. Still, hints are aplenty. In one scene, Nyong’o sits silently and fearfully as tears stream down her face — just as Daniel Kaluuya did during his first hypnosis in Get Out. Get Out saw white people hypnotize African Americans to hijack and take over their bodies and minds; Us‘ violent doppelgängers could easily be an extension of The Sunken Place. One more fascinating fan theory: In the car, Nyong’o’s character tries to teach her son how to stay in rhythm to the hip-hop song “Got Five on It” but she’s noticeably off-beat herself. That’s just the sort of peculiar behavior you’d see at one of Allison Williams’ family’s Get Out garden parties.
8. Could Lupita Nyong’o get an Oscar for her performance(s)?
It’s never too early to prognosticate Oscars 2020! After all, Kaluuya got a Best Actor nomination for Get Out, also released in the first quarter of the year. And Nyong’o — who won an Oscar in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave — pulls off dual roles in Us. As Peele has noted, “When I was watching this [with the audience], I was stricken,” he said. “Lupita does Ripley [Alien], she does Clarice Starling, and she does Hannibal Lecter [both from Silence of the Lambs] in one movie. It’s crazy.”
9. First Get Out, now Us. Will Jordan Peele ever go back to his comedy roots?
But those Home Alone jokes in Us were killer! But wait . . . the Emmy-winning star of the Comedy Central sketch series Key & Peele still considers himself a comedy guy. He’s just pushing different buttons. “My DNA as an artist is a desire to provoke,” he says. “If I’m not doing something that might piss people off, I’m probably doing it wrong. I think the biggest mistake I can make is creating something that lands as being as a bully somehow as opposed to lifting the underdog. You can step over the line in comedy.” And FWIW, his next work? Voicing a character, alongside his former partner Keegan-Michael Kay, in June’s Toy Story 4. That’s a Disney movie.
10. Two words: The Rabbits. Go.
The tethered people eat them. They wander around the underground. Peele has said that the furry animals are intended to subvert expectations. Beyond that, you got me. Between all the ‘80s homages in this movie (even the Santa Cruz boardwalk harkens back to The Lost Boys), maybe it’s a subtle nod to Fatal Attraction?
Us is now playing in theaters nationwide.