Written and directed by Jordan Peele of Key and Peele fame, one might expect Get Out to be a comedy, and while it is often quite funny, it is a horror movie first, and a damn good one. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a college-aged photographer who is about to meet his girlfriend’s family for the first time. The thing is, she’s white and he’s black. Rose (Allison Williams) suggests that it won’t be a big deal to her liberal parents, but Chris is a bit disturbed to find that she hasn’t even broached the topic with them. “My father would have voted for Obama a third time,” she assures Chris, and with that they head into the country for a little bit of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Despite a small accident on the road, and a scene of light police harassment, to which Chris takes the “whatever, let’s just get out of here” approach, things seem to be going well. Sure enough, the rich, super-white Armitage family doesn’t even bat an eye regarding Chris’ race, even if they do appear to be over compensating for it with heavy doses of “my man” and other generally out of character affectations. Mr. Armitage (an excellently cast Bradley Whitford) is the first to point out the fact that yes, his maid and his groundskeeper are both black, and that he is fully aware of how bad it looks to an outsider. He assures Chris that they were simply the best for the job, and Chris, not wanting to make waves, is happy to let it slide.
As the weekend progresses – and hordes of rich white socialites appear at the Armitage residence for tea, bingo, and other hoity-toity BS – Chris begins to suspect something more sinister is at play. And when he decides to try and bond with some of the help, he’s downright sure that something is up. To say more would be to ruin one of the most cleverly plotted films of recent memory. I assure you it’s worth going into this one blind. I’d even avoid watching a trailer.
Peele shows great strength as a visual stylist. The design is calculated and striking, from the more trippy elements (there’s a hypnotism device here that is very much a visual riff on Under the Skin and Being John Malkovich) all the way down to the Burnt Offerings-esque architecture of house Armitage. Peele is obviously a student of classic horror, keenly applying a palpable mood, and punctuating it with a handful of earned jump scares. The dread is piled on very thick, reminiscent of one of my favorite sub-genres of horror, what I like to call the “there’s something wrong here but I can’t prove it because everyone is so nice” style. The Wicker Man is perhaps the most classic example of this, with Spider-Baby arguably being the progenitor of the form. Peele works heavily in with facial close-ups, another tool from the early days of horror, when the size of the screen was itself a novelty and expressive acting became more than just the grand gestures of stage performance. This style is used to great strength here, as so much of the narrative lifting is accomplished in the moments between the lines. It’s a movie about racial tension, and tension thrives in the realm of the unsaid. Kaluuya’s performance is one of quiet strength broken up by reluctant servitude, and he carries so much of Chris’ charm and depth through his face alone. It’s a subdued physical performance which exhibits Chris’ strength as well as his feeling of “otherness” that is so hard for a viewer like me to identify with. And even though I can’t outright empathize, he makes it effectively identifiable.
The rewatchability factor is strong in Get Out. I’ve only seen it once (this will change), but looking back, I suspect that every single “I wonder what that means” moment pays off. It’s the opposite of a film like last week’s A Cure for Wellness, which crumbles structurally in hindsight (not a problem – I loved that film, it just has different goals). Every twist and turn is earned and none require a stretch of logic. In fact, the film is so consistent with its rules that even when it takes a hard, hard turn into an expressly fictional horror world, it remains firmly affixed to the rails. This is a sign of good craftsmanship. Seriously, how is this a debut film? It doesn’t make sense. Sure, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but Get Out is confident in a way that few filmmakers capture even after multiple outings. Peele may have shot himself in the foot by opening so strongly. I can’t fathom a follow up being an easy task.
I suspect he’s up to it.
I want to rewatch this again before it leaves theaters, and then I want to watch it at home. And then I want to find people who haven’t seen it and watch them watch it. I want to show it to everyone I know of a different race or gender from my own and ask them how they feel about it. I want to crack this one wide open and dig into levels of it that I can’t even begin to conceptualize having only seen it once.
. . .
It’s Oscar weekend. A time when Hollywood gets together to pat itself on the back for its own phoned-in sensitivity for social justice. After last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the hot button issue is race and representation in film. And while I am indeed an Oscar zealot, one only need look at the recent history of the Oscars to see how limited, even in the face of positive progress, the discussion of race still tends to be.
This year the two biggest contenders are Moonlight, a truly masterful film that tackles the difficulties of pride and self-representation in an under-privileged world, and Hidden Figures, a bland, preachy movie that browbeats the audience with a message kept so broad that it seems designed solely to prevent white people from feeling too guilty.
And that’s how we do it. Stark drama or Hollywood Hallmark crap (or the occasional slavery movie). Yes, it’s all cool by me (seriously, Moonlight is an all-time great film), but for my money, if you want to get a message across, it’s all about satire. Why do we so rarely apply satire to discussions of race? Is it really such a sensitive topic that we can’t be a little bit edgy about it? I think not. As an extremely white man, I find it difficult not to coldly reject so much of our mass marketed racial art. Mostly because in keeping with trying to make a film pleasing to white audiences, a lot of nuance is lost, and I find it upsetting to be broadly implicated in villainy (yes, I am aware of the irony of this statement – but two wrongs do not make a right, and a simple ‘good v bad’ narrative makes for a crap movie).
But then comes a movie like Get Out. Racially-charged with a razor sharp edge and deeply cutting wit. It’s tense, angry, hilarious, and here in Trump’s America, it might as well be a protest film. As a (too) sensitive white viewer, it was exactly what I wanted to see AND NEEDED TO BE SHOWN. This is a film that outright condemns the implicit racism in the hearts of all people, poking fun at the harder to recognize barbs that those of us in the majority blindly poke at people of color with the best intentions, serving only to make them feel like others (Do you watch The Wire, bro?). Simultaneously, there’s a criticism of a world in which tension runs high enough between races that even when dealing in kindness, there are external reasons why even the majority can be made to feel uncomfortable. There is nuance here, and since I’m on board with the idea that racism is bad, I appreciate the lens being drawn into sharper focus. There’s always room for improvement, and movies like Get Out are the type of explosive entertainment that trick me into thinking that bettering myself was my own idea, which is almost always how change occurs. Satire, baby. Holding a mirror up to society might get some attention, but make it a funhouse mirror and everybody will stop to take a look.
::Grabs the Academy by their perfectly tailored lapels and yells “START HONORING HORROR MOVIES! THERE IS TRUTH IN HORROR!”::
Get Out is proof that the best way to get anyone on board with a message isn’t to tell them to think — it’s to make them think.
Get Out opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.