Jordan Peele, one half of the comedy duo Key and Peele, doesn’t, put mildly, seem like a natural fit for the horror genre. A lifelong horror fan, Peele had noted that the genre, while no stranger to tackling social issues, has never really grappled with the subject of race in any substantial way (he has said that the original Night of the Living Dead was the closest the genre has come, but Tales from the Hood probably merits at least a mention). To wit, Peele has made his directorial debut with the racially tinged Get Out, a story that addresses race head-on. The question that immediately emerges is whether or not such a dyed-in-the-wool comedy fixture could make a straightforward, serious-minded horror film. The answer is a full-throated “sorta.”
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a college student six months deep into an exceedingly cutesy relationship with Rose (Girls’ Allison Williams). Rose invites Chris to accompany her to visit her affluent family at their stately home far away from civilization. Chris is nervous because Rose has neglected to give her parents a heads-up that he is black. Rose shrugs off his concerns, helpfully noting that her father would have voted for Obama a third time were he able to. Upon arriving, Chris meets Rose’s outwardly agreeable parents, Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), but immediately picks up a strange vibe wafting through their abode. Their surly son Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) barely bothers to veil his puffed-chest aggression toward Chris. The Armitages’ two black caretakers (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson) seem eerily vacant and constantly look askance at Chris. At a dinner party, the rich, white attendees seem fixated on Chris, their pleasantries alternately condescending and suspicious, while the lone black guest (Keith Stanfield) attacks Chris, seemingly triggered by the flash of his phone.
As the oddness and apprehension continue to mount up, Chris turns to surreptitious phone conversations with his best friend, boastful TSA agent Rod (Lil Rel Howery), as a sounding board for his ordeal. He also leans on Rose, the one person he can trust in the Armitage clan. But soon the warning signs give way to what’s really going on with this family, plunging Chris into a grave situation that he is forced to fight his way out of to survive.
Get Out is an oddly structured film, no doubt the result of Peele’s desire to make a genuine horror film while also having no desire to shed his natural bent as a satirist. At first, the film seems to be setting itself up a racially charged Meet the Parents, mining Chris’ predicament for uneasy humor. Chris is forced to plaster on a smile as old white people patronize him with awkward references to Obama or Tiger Woods, or, worse, pepper him with thoughtless musings on how the racial “pendulum” is now swinging in his favor. Peele could have made an entirely bloodless, yet equally unnerving horror film simply out of the social nightmare Chris finds himself enmeshed in here. The material is at once insightful, darkly humorous and deeply discomforting.
But Peele has also made a horror film that wants you to cringe from bloodletting as well as from white-privilege obliviousness, and it’s in this turn that Get Out goes to some truly strange places, in ways both iffy and great. For instance, when the film’s endgame is revealed, Peele moves the goalposts. The film ceases to be about white fear and mistrust toward blacks, but rather about white envy and co-option of black traits. This is a somewhat jarring turn, exacerbated by the grisly and bizarre means the film chooses to illustrate it in a proper horror context, and it doesn’t quite land. However, once the final carnage begins to be dished out, Get Out isn’t simply ferociously entertaining, but also truly cathartic in the era of Black Lives Matter. Chris isn’t just killing monsters, he’s killing avatars of longstanding dehumanization. They themselves might be exaggerated, but the mindsets that they represent are not.
Get Out also gets a major boost from Howery’s Rod, who is truly hilarious in every scene in which he appears, even if he clashes with the rest of the film by seeming as though he wandered in from an uncommonly funny Barbershop sequel. And while the film doesn’t quite use Whitford and Keener to their fullest potential, it’s difficult to imagine any role utilizing Allison Williams as effectively as this one. Williams, with her plasticine beauty, is the perfect embodiment of wholesome, entitled whiteness (Peele leans into it, too, in a scene where Williams drinks a glass of milk with the Dirty Dancing soundtrack blaring through her earbuds), yet her slightly demented smile also dovetails with the film’s off-kilter aura. Kaluuya, also, anchors the film with a performance far more nuanced than a horror protagonist is often allowed.
In a genre that all too often is content to wallow in familiarity and formula, Get Out feels refreshingly alive. It’s impossible to ever predict where this film is going, and even if where it ends up doesn’t entirely work, its crowdpleasing sensibilities have kicked in too strongly by that point to resist. Ignore the title; you’re gonna want to get in on this.
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