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Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ has more on its mind than a few scares

“Us,” the new Jordan Peele film, is heady horror.

Like his first film, “Get Out,” it’s a horror film that has a lot more on its mind than a few scares. That’s not to say there aren’t more than enough frights and literal stabs of violence to satisfy horror fans. It’s just that ultimately, the film is less interested in shocking the nervous system than it is in stimulating the brain.

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“Us” has a brilliantly simple and eerie premise that starts innocently enough.

“There’s a family in our driveway.”

That’s the young son of a family of four, the Wilsons, who are vacationing in a house near Santa Cruz. The family of four in the driveway is standing under a streetlight in the dead of night, not moving, not speaking. They appear to resemble the individual Wilsons, except for the fact they’re all wearing red jumpsuits. When the dad threatens the trespassers, they attack the house.

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The Wilsons are dealing with their doppelgangers, their evil twins, their Mr. Hydes, their shadow selves. And this red family has deep-seated grievances with the Wilsons. For every positive thing that’s happened to the Wilsons in their lives, something correspondingly unfortunate has happened to the red family. In the course of the film, each family member will have to confront their darker self and either overcome it or succumb to it. It’s a battle to the end, and may not even be over by movie’s end.

This psychological dimension gradually gives way to a more sociological one. It turns out the Wilsons are not the only ones haunted by their red counterparts. In fact, there’s an entire underground of red-jumpsuited threats ready to stake their claim in the ultimate battle between the haves and have-nots, the privileged and the less privileged.

As the red mom sneers to the Wilson mom, “We’re humans, too.” They may be two bodies but they’re tethered by one soul. The Wilson mom forgets that at her own peril.

This is a thought-provoking film that raises more questions than it answers. Having only seen it once, I’m more than willing to acknowledge that everything I just said in the preceding paragraphs could be all wrong.

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It’s just my first best effort at making sense of a dense, funny, multi-layered film that’s exhilarating even when unclear.

The cast is excellent, especially Lupita Nyong’o as the Wilson mom and red mom. The guttural speaking voice that Nyong’o adopts for red mom is as creepy as creepy gets.

And finally, Peele is on record saying that, after all the attention that “Get Out” got, he wanted to make a horror movie that wasn’t about race at all. The Wilsons are an African-American family – the first-ever to be the central figures in a horror film, I think, but Peele succeeds in making their race more or less incidental to the film. If he skewers whites and liberals in “Get Out,” he goes after all of us in “Us,” whites, blacks, Americans, and anyone else who claims to be human.

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