Jordan Peele turns racial tension into all-out terror in timely horror-comedy
Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener
Horror films, at their best, have always served as a mirror for society’s most up-to-date fears. From the terror of atomic mutation in the 1950s (Godzilla, Them!) to the clash between religion and science in the ’70s (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist) to the political paranoia of today (The Purge), Hollywood has paid close attention to what’s bothering us as a nation. Now comes another timely take on the horror genre, exploiting a topic that could not be more ripped-
Less than a year ago, Jordan Peele and his comic partner in crime, Keegan-Michael Key, were busting out of TV (the zeitgeist-grabbing sketch comedy series “Key & Peele”) with their first feature. Keanu had its moments of comic inspiration, but it proved too much of a one-joke premise to register as a hit with audiences. Instead of going back to the drawing board, Peele flipped it over entirely and went in a very different direction, writing and directing a low-budget, blackly comic horror thriller with strong elements of social commentary. The result, Get Out, is smart, funny, sharply observed and damn scary when it needs to be.
A nicely balanced mixture between the trenchant social commentary of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and the eerie suburban satire of The Stepford Wives, Get Out starts by introducing us to a young, African American photographer named Chris Washington (British actor Daniel Kaluuya from Sicario) and his Caucasian girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams from “Girls”). The two are at that stage of their relationship where it’s time to meet the parents. Chris’ mother and father are tragically out of the picture, but Rose’ parents live in a fancy suburban enclave outside of the city. Chris repeatedly quizzes Rose, making sure she’s informed her parents that he’s actually black. She assures him it’s no big deal—they’re a couple of white collar liberals who would have voted Obama in for a third term.
Despite the reassurances, Chris finds himself distinctly out-of-place inside the Armitages’ tidy, rural mansion. Brain surgeon dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) and hypnotherapist mom Missy (Catherine Keener) are almost too friendly. They and their lily-white neighbors go out of their way to express their admiration for African Americans. Hey, they love Tiger Woods—how bad could they be? It’s this liberal twist that lends Get Out its biggest impact. It would have been easy to make Rose’s parents a couple of Archie Bunker-ish Trump voters—which is, no doubt, the scenario most conservative pundits imagined when hearing about this film. But Peele is saying there’s a certain, two-faced form of racism inherent in even the most liberal of white privilege.
Over time, of course, Chris begins to suspect that something’s not quite right in this privileged community. There are, for example, the Armitages’ two black servants, a maid and a groundskeeper, who—for all their cordial kowtowing—come across as slightly zombie-ish. Dean admits that having black servants “looks bad,” but they were hired to take care of his parents, and he would have felt bad letting them go. Chris is portrayed as a modern, urban black man, deft at shrugging off the constant barrage of quiet racism pointed in his direction. Plus, meeting your potential in-laws is a tense time under the best of circumstances. So, despite the lingering weirdness, Chris ignores his nagging suspicions about Rose’s family—not to mention the comic warnings of his skeptical pal back home (the terrific LilRel Howery), who insists rich white people are all on the hunt for black sex slaves.
Eventually, of course, the other shoe drops, and Chris’ life is in some serious peril. The reasoning behind it all is, of course, far-fetched—but the film attains such momentum in the crazy revelations, jump scares and gory shenanigans of its final reel that it’s hard to really notice. Peele proves himself an expert genre director, balancing the occasional chuckles with some serious, scary thrills. His script. meanwhile, is deep enough to give some solid context to these characters. A flashback to Chris’ childhood, spurred by Missy’s hypnotic help (you knew that particular career would figure into it sooner than later), serves up some emotional tragedy and sets the stage for the scary moments to come.
Get Out is a bold, ballsy offering—unafraid to call bullshit on institutionalized racism, to turn genre tropes on their head or to laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s not perfect by any means. The “big reveal” in most horror movies rarely lives up to the “tense buildup”—and that’s arguably the case here. Could this film have been scarier? Sure. Could it have been even funnier. Probably. But it’s an entertaining, edge-of-your-seat start to Peele’s directing career.