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'Us' makes for a scary, smart kick-off to SXSW

Joe Gross

Jordan Peele just can’t help himself. After the horror movie roots of his debut “Get Out” ended up being overtaken by its brilliant socio-political themes, Peele swore his next one would be a straight-up horror movie.

Which, no question, the excellent “Us” is — your blood will curdle, there will be yelling at the screen. But, like “Get Out,” the film (which premiered earlier this month at South by Southwest Film Festival) is a lot more. Also like “Get Out,” it demands to be seen more than once.

It is 1986 in Santa Cruz, California. A young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) is at a beachfront amusement park with her parents when she wanders off into an abandoned-looking house of mirrors. And then ... something happens.

Whatever that something was, it haunts Adelaide to this day. This is where the movie picks up about 30 years later. Her adult self (Lupita Nyong'o) is driving with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), and young children, Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), to her childhood beach house. Gabe wants to go to the local amusement park; Adelaide most definitely does not — she is still traumatized by whatever happened there. They meet old friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and have a decent time. (Whomever cut the film’s trailers did a bang-up job both revealing and mixing up information.)

That night, however, the family is menaced by a family of doppelgangers, all dressed in red jumpsuits. Each actor plays the horrifying “shadow” version of themselves. Nyong'o, talking in a genuinely chilling croak, speaks for the four invaders, noting that they have lived “tethered” to their counterparts and, well, it’s payback time. "Us" then shifts into a home invasion movie, yes, but as we move further from the house itself, everything gets weirder and weirder. This is not a safe ride.

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Everyone is rock solid as his or her counterpart, but Nyong'o does a dazzling job with both parts. Her Adelaide is scared and tough; her tethered counterpart is here for holy vengeance.

Mixing Cronenberg, Hitchcock and yes, a lot of “Twilight Zone” (a reboot of which Peele is helming), “Us” mixes rather direct allegories (“Us and “U.S.” do look awfully similar) with a mess of images that seems designed to provoke vigorous post-view debate. (I am still trying to figure out all the stuff with the rabbits.)

And yes, it’s absolutely as smart as “Get Out.” Peele has said he knows exactly what, for him, the movie is about, but he tried hard to construct a film upon which folks could project their own meanings. It’s hard to escape the “we have met the enemy and he is us” of it all, but the film offers a few paths to getting there.

Oh, and just to save you the time, because it does come up in “Us,” Jeremiah 11:11 (King James Version) says, "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.”

Have fun!

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Grade: A

Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex.

Rating: R for violence/terror and language.

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.

Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Ritz, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock, Sky, Southpark, Stone Hill, Violet Crown, Westgate. IMAX: Gateway.