‘Us’ Is A Horror Movie About Everyday Inequality

'Us' is a film about how monstrous the average American family is.

Us Jordan Peele Review

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By the middle of the ’80s, the setting for the prologue of Jordan Peele’s Us and a period of renewed corporate greed, a thought experiment by the philosopher Peter Singer known as the drowning child analogy had firmly taken hold in scholarly circles.

The following contains extensive spoilers of Us.

The thought experiment goes like this: imagine you have just purchased some very expensive new shoes. They are made of suede, and you love them very much.

You love them so much, in fact, that you have decided to take them for a scenic walk around the banks of a nearby lake.

However, no sooner have you begun to patrol the edges of the lake’s perimeter, when you hear a series of short, sharp cries. You look across the water and see the shape of a drowning child, their head bobbing just below the surface. There is no time to take off your new shoes, which are fastened to your feet in a series of complicated knots. In order to save the child’s life, you must dive into the water and ruin your new purchase.

Which, Singer contends, is the only real option. It would be monstrous to watch the child drown, just for the sake of some suede boots. A human life is worth much more than a luxury like shoes.

But then Singer takes the example further. Imagine the child is not drowning, but instead dying of a preventable, mosquito-borne disease in Africa. There are many children right now in such a situation. These children do not need someone to jump into a lake to save them. They need occasional donations of money that they can use to purchase mosquito nets.

These sums of money are nominal. They are so nominal in fact, that many of us have the money to buy thousands of mosquito nets every year — and many more still if we take Singer’s advice, and seek out a high-paying job in order to donate 60% of our earnings to charity.

But for the large part we don’t. Instead, we spend that money on ourselves — on tickets to the movies; expensive meals; suede shoes. We are aware that we could be doing more to help. But we don’t. We refuse to dive into the lake. We choose the suede boots instead of the drowning child.

The thought experiment is, of course, a call to arms – an invitation to live and spend ethically, rather than be a slave to self-interest. But it has another, important repercussion. If we take the drowning child thought experiment to be true, it obliterates the concept of amoral actions.

If Singer is right, those idle actions we once imagined existed outside the spectrum of evil or good acts become deeply entangled with morality. Going to the shops, relaxing with a bar of chocolate at the end of the day; taking our new shoes around a lake — all these exercises require us to ignore our charitable obligations. In Singer’s world, every dollar spent on frivolous pleasures and not the saving of human lives is an immoral act, as callous as letting a child drown in a lake.

These then are the stakes — we are all living in the shadow of a great atrocity, one that is both sprawling and difficult to acknowledge, and one that requires the curtailing of personal habits and pleasures to fix.

To do anything less — to refuse to play the game altogether — is as bad as murder.

The Morality Of Us

Jordan Peele’s Us is a literalisation of that same worldview.

In the film’s first act, Peele introduces us to the distinctly middle class world of his protagonists, the Wilson family. The Wilsons are not rich, per se. The motor boat the patriarch Gabe (Winston Duke) impulse buys barely works, and the family’s lifestyle is contrasted with that of their friends, the Tylers, who drink expensive alcohol, and drawl demands to their Alexa-type automated assistant.

But, whatever their exact economic standing, the Wilsons are creatures of leisure. We never learn what they do for work. It is irrelevant. For the young Zora, running track is an irritating dalliance she is looking to retire. For her brother, Jason, life’s challenges appear in the form of a misfiring lighter and a toy ambulance that has a habit of rolling away when it shouldn’t. Each family member is forever in a position of repose — lying on the couch, or on towels on the beach, or in beds that they themselves haven’t made.

Importantly, for Peele, the Wilsons are not exceptional in their pleasure-seeking. They do not have extravagant tastes, or wasteful attitudes towards money. They are in many ways an ordinary American family, lucky enough to both reap the benefits of a technological revolution and to avoid the worst effects of the environmental collapse caused by that very revolution.

Indeed, unlike Get Out, which moved from skewering its white Liberal antagonists in one way to skewering them in another, distinctly bloodier way, Us makes all of its points simply by contrast. The Wilsons are fine, ordinary Americans, who seem as amoral as they come — until the world of the Tethered beneath their feet is revealed, and suddenly they are not anymore.

Rabbits And The Underground

That subterranean world is a distorted, horrendous simulacrum of the Wilson’s own.

Instead of carnival rides, the displaced, unwanted and soul-starved Tethered have to sit in rooms, grimly shaking their own bodies. Instead of fairy floss, they have raw rabbit meat. Instead of the open night sky, they have an elevator that only moves in one direction.

Worse still, there is no justice to the distinction between the two worlds. The land of the Tethered is no Hell, even if it might be hellish — it is not a place of punishment for the immoral. You are either lucky enough to be born on the surface, or unlucky enough to be born beneath it. Only the chaos of birth assigns you a spot in either the sunshine, or in the dark.

This is how it goes in Singer’s thought experiment, where the only thing separating you and your expendable income from a child dying of malaria is the lottery you enter when you go from non-existence to existence.

And it is how it goes in life, where to this day the economic standing of your parents continues to largely determine how much money you will go on to make and how much power you will go on to yield, and where the prison industrial complex forever threatens to lock some into a cycle of incarceration and re-offence.

“We’re Americans”

Us has no clear answers as to how one might fix such inequality.

It’s a horror movie, and so like many horror movies, it positions the viewers emotionally closer to the victims than those committing acts of violence against them.

As a result, it’s deliberately unclear exactly how Peele feels when the Tethered rise up from their unfair and underground torture chambers to remind the surface-dwellers the horrors that all their beachside holidays are predicated on.

What is clear, however, is the means of fixing inequality that Us rejects.

The film opens and closes on the same image — Americans, spanning the country, hand in hand, symbolically rejecting violence. Only, in the opening, they are surface-dwellers, naïve to the extent of the horrors that their world contains. And in the finale, they are the Tethered, offering up a horrendous parody of America’s self-obsession and long-standing urge to self-congratulate over moral quandaries they could — but don’t — fix.

Thus, in the film’s finale, virtue-signalling has been taken to its ideological endpoint: reduced, and made bloody, its non-action revealed. After all, a symbol is only a symbol. The child is still drowning.

Joseph Earp is a music and film critic who writes about horror cinema, bad TV, post-punk and The Muppets. He tweets at @joe_o_earp.