This article contains spoilers for “Us.”
In “Us,” a family of uncanny, jumpsuit-clad tunnel dwellers known as “the Tethered” descend upon the home of their well-to-do doppelgängers, the Wilsons. The husband, Gabe, (Winston Duke) offers the intruders his wallet, his car and his A.T.M. pin, though he notes they “don’t have anything” of value at the house — it’s their summer lake house, he explains, and they just arrived that day. The Tethered placidly watch him bargain. With their sharp scissors and copycat faces, it’s clear the bedraggled invaders aren’t interested in cash.
The writer-director Jordan Peele’s latest nightmare is part of a long line of home-invasion movies like “The Last House on the Left” and “Straw Dogs” that tap into the fear that home may be where the danger is. When blood spills in a vacation house, however, that dread takes on an extra layer of meaning: Wealth becomes a signifier, leaving the haves vulnerable to opportunistic have-nots. If you are rich enough to use “summer” as a verb, someone will try to murder you.
“Us” brings that class divide directly to the surface. In pitting a hard-working, rich black family against their downtrodden duplicates, Peele makes this tension complicated and explicit. As Gabe’s fruitless offers show, summer homeowners don’t die in horror movies because their killers are out for treasure. They die because their killers are out for them.
But in similar movies like “You’re Next,” the vacation-home invader’s twisted reasoning is often muddled or only hinted at. In this 2011 indie, directed by Adam Wingard and written by Simon Barrett, the Final Girl, Erin (Sharni Vinson), faces off against a group of masked invaders in a vacation home belonging to her boyfriend Crispian’s family. His parents are, in her words, “pretty loaded.”
“You don’t know what most people would give to have folks like yours,” Erin tells Crispian (A.J. Bowen), before they fall asleep on a 100-year-old bed.
But Crispian is dismissive of his privilege, a callousness that quickly turns toxic as the film reveals that he and his brother sent the masked killers to their own home to fast-track their inheritance. Unfortunately for them, Erin was raised on a survivalist commune in the Australian outback. She takes out the baddies with bludgeons and booby traps.
Erin’s sparse upbringing makes her uniquely capable of dismantling Crispian’s scheme. Still, Crispian ultimately tries to win her over with money, promising her a vacation in Paris.
Erin stabs him in the eye.
“You’re Next” is not overly direct about its class implications, but it does set a scrappy protagonist against a rich family intent on cannibalizing itself. The upper-class characters are mutilated by their own excess, and the audience is happy to see them die because of their unconscionable greed.
“Funny Games” — Michael Haneke’s demented 1997 Austrian film and his shot-for-shot 2007 American remake — is more open about playing with the notion that the victims’ wealth makes them a target. The American version opens on a bird’s-eye-view of our victims, the Farbers, playing “guess the opera song” in their giant S.U.V. They are driving to their summer home, sailboat in tow, for “a week or two” of relaxation.
Their biggest conundrum is what to do with all of their extra steak, until two white-gloved sociopaths appear and bet them they’ll be dead by 9 a.m. the next day. The family is slowly done in by objects that connote their relative wealth: a Callaway golf club, a hunting rifle, the sailboat.
For all the abject physical violence in “Funny Games,” the psychological manipulation is altogether more horrifying. The menaces Paul and Peter (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) dance around their motivation for torturing the Farbers, manipulating audience sympathies by claiming they are underprivileged.
“The truth is, he’s white trash,” Paul claims, referring to Peter. “He comes from a filthy, deprived family.”
Later, Paul suggests they’re both drug addicts: “We rob rich families in their charming vacation homes to support our habit.”
In one of the film’s many fourth-wall-breaking moments, Paul turns to the camera. “You’re on their side, aren’t you?” he asks. The taunt mocks viewers’ complicity in what’s happening onscreen — you may sympathize with the Farbers, but you’re also being entertained by their demise.
“Us” doesn’t dance around its intentions. It’s at first easy to root for the Wilsons as underdogs: Peele sets up a dichotomy between the Wilsons’ privilege and that of their white friends, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker). The Tylers languish in gadgets and plastic surgery, only surfacing from their alcoholic fugues long enough to snap at each other — yet they are ostensibly better off, financially, than the Wilsons. Their car is nicer; they have a yacht instead of a motorboat. These subtle advantages get under Gabe’s skin and serve as a running tension throughout the film as he tries unsuccessfully to match their material possessions.
But the Wilsons’ relationship to the Tethered — an oppressed class of people taking down their more fortunate doubles — complicates the audience’s allegiance. When Red (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family invade the Wilson’s home, she tells them a story: Red’s double, Gabe’s wife, Adelaide, is a girl who grows up eating delicious food, playing with cuddly toys and eventually marrying the man she loves. Her shadow — Red herself — eats “rabbit, raw and bloody”; plays with toys so sharp that they cut her; and is forced into a loveless marriage. While Adelaide was able to have her second child via C-section, her shadow “had to do it all herself.” Trapped in an underground, experimental cloning lab, Red and the other Tethered are the ultimate have-nots.
Though Peele has cited “Funny Games” as an influence on “Us,” he recognizes the cultural differences inherent in showcasing a vacation-home-owning black family facing off against their dystopian selves: Both the Farbers and the Wilsons are introduced through aerial shots of their cars, but rather than opera, the Wilsons arrive blasting Janelle Monáe. (The song is “I Like That,” with lyrics that include the artist proudly proclaiming to be a “walking contradiction,” “factual and fiction.”)
A cheerful painting of a black mother and daughter hangs in their vacation home. Gabe code-switches, deepening his voice to sound more intimidating, in order to try and scare the intruders away. The Tethered ultimately get in by using the spare key Adelaide has hidden under a rock, which Gabe calls “white [expletive]” — the family’s neighborhood comforts betray them.
By the third act, the film reveals that Adelaide was one of the Tethered who escaped and forced Red to take her place. At that point we have to ask ourselves: Who did the Wilsons have to step on to get where they are?
For all the ease they signify, Adelaide’s free time, vacation home and beach access actually make her anxious. She spends the first act of the movie on edge, overwhelmed by the gut feeling — like a “black cloud” — that her double is near. As a former member of the Tethered, Adelaide knows that her advantages make her a target in the impending class uprising. When the Tethered have their “time up there,” as Red calls it, those lucky enough to live in the sunshine will be the first to go.