Jordan Peele (director/writer), Toby Oliver (cinematography)
Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Keith Stanfield (cast)
January 23, 2017 (Sundance), February 24, 2017 (United States)
It is inaccurate to call Get Out a horror film. There is horror — on multiple levels, but that’s not all there is to the movie. It’s more of a horror suspense melange with so many other elements that your mental palate will be stimulated in ways you as a viewer may not have often experienced.
The film is best seen for the first time unspoiled, so this review will be as close to spoiler-free as I can manage.
Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, the handsome, young, talented Black photographer about to take his relationship with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to the next level: meeting the parents. He asks his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) to look after his dog, and off they go in her car to the Armitage family’s palatial home in upstate NY, despite his misgivings about Rose never having told her family he is Black in all the months they’ve been dating.
Chris navigates his life in the way many Black people will find familiar. He catches the power trips and the micro-aggressions, weighs the worth of standing up for himself against the inevitable cost of stepping out of what white society has determined as his “place,” and decides to save himself the aggravation by letting it go and shrugging it off. The first one happens before they even make it to the house, with a Police Officer who demands ID from Chris although Rose was driving.
Chris gets to meet Rose’s family, who live in a house that looks like it belongs in an Antebellum film rather than a modern setting. There are swooping columns and rocking chairs on the porch. Rocking chairs! The only two other black people in sight are Walter, the groundskeeper, and Georgina, the maid. After a brief and awkward tour of the house in which we learn Rose accurately predicted her father would go on about voting Obama a third term if he could, and that Rose’s grandfather lost to Jesse Owens in the Olympic trials, Rose’s parents spring on the couple that they had arrived–coincidentally–on the same weekend as the family’s annual get-together. Even the “just like one of the family” maid and groundskeepers have something to say to Chris to make him feel…well, not exactly welcome.
Kaluuya makes it all look real: his guarded willingness to put aside his fears to please his girlfriend; his awkwardness and discomfort at being the only black person there to visit; his willingness to give the benefit of the doubt only so long before he needs to blow off some steam by walking or calling his friend for the comfort of a familiar voice. When things begin to turn weird and then dangerous, the hairline fractures in his careful composure widen to hard breaks. It shatters altogether when the monstrous evil makes itself known.
Rod, who has had misgivings about his friend going upstate with a white woman he’s only known for four months, begins to worry about his friend. Unfortunately, his rather boisterous personality makes his genuine concern seem kind of silly. Peele masterfully interweaves comedy both heartfelt and wry into Chris’ experience, taking the viewer from his disgusted but amused reaction to his best friend Rod’s sincere but ridiculous ruminations on Jeffrey Dahmer to a painfully relatable resonance with Chris’ squick at being touched in an overly familiar way by a white person who has just met him. Chris’ boggled bemused surprise elicits uncomfortable laughter at seeing another Black person dressed in a fashion that screams “I’m not from this time period,” or perhaps they’re screaming something else…but what?
Allison Williams’ Rose is portrayed as the progressive and well-meaning white girl only just now realizing her parents, whom she defended as not racist, might be after all. A black boyfriend makes it more obvious to her that racism is not only burning crosses and using the N word with impunity. Her part in the film’s climax is all the more jarring as a result because Hollywood has conditioned us to expect certain things about a white woman in love — and those things are replaced with something that strikes hard and deep.
Bradley Whitford and Katherine Keener play Rose’s parents. They seem to dote on their daughter in an overprotective way, but more out of fear of Chris’ smoking habit than any stereotypes about his Blackness. But they’re not what they appear any more than Rose. Every seemingly genuine and sincere question or comment is part of something bigger and much worse. Caleb Landry Jones plays Rose’s brother Jeremy who serves to invert the Bechdel-Wallace test and to raise the stakes from deeply uncomfortable to actively frightening.
Horror as Social Commentary
Horror films often comment on issues that stir fear in society. It’s a tradition dating back decades. The Blob (1958) was a sci-fi horror take on The Red Scare of Communism. The 1978 and 2004 versions of Dawn of the Dead were about conspicuous consumerism. 2004’s Shaun of the Dead was a horror/comedy remark on sleepwalking through life.
Get Out is another film in this vein, but still something more: it takes horror as social commentary, adds comedy to set a viewer off balance, and places subtleties under the obvious moments that only hit a viewer upside the head because the movie will linger on the mind. It had the proper Horror Movie notes: shadowy figures in the background, jump scares, shrill string music stings, and discordant audiovisuals. Jordan Peele is making his writer/director debut here, and if this is his first outing, he is going to be one to watch. His social awareness shows, as does his research, and his experience as a Black man binds together the way those pieces come together in his vision.
Black viewers over the age of 35 will recognize the title as a running joke that goes something like this: in a movie when some unseen, sinister voice intones, “Geeeet OOOUUUTT,” the white protagonists find some way to rationalize it and refuse to leave until people start dying. Black people in the same situation would take the creepy voice at face value and leave on the spot. That joke is recognized in the film, mostly by Rod’s behaviour in-scene; but there is no more attention given it than that, because it’s not the creepy house warning Chris to get out, yet the words get spoken anyway and for a similar reason. A recognizable trope is present but in an unfamiliar form: just another way to keep the audience off balance and their expectations uncertain.
Hope Spots and Layers
Peele places careful Hope Spots, making it look like Chris may find an ally in one place or another. But the scene shifts and hope is lost in the transition. The film is thankfully not predictable despite it being chock-full of recognizable tropes. Peele plays them against their comfortably expected outcomes, leaving his audience off-balance and unable to trust what they will see and whether it plays out along familiar lines.
Fair warning: the title of this review is not just a play on words. This is not a comfortable film to watch. The film will leave an attentive viewer mentally exhausted and disturbed. There are layers upon layers of messages about racism and believing that one is not racist while still towing the line for it. White viewers who are convinced that they’re not racist are stuck on the idea that we’re in a post-Racial America are going to be unsettled by the film’s core philosophy: “white people” as individuals or a group are not bad–racism is. I evangelized in the ticket line on my way out, but I do advise self-care afterward for sensitive viewers. Despite having an unusually low instance of gore and splatter, respect the R rating. It is still a horror melange and not a film for kids.
Get Out was riveting enough that I didn’t look at my watch even once during the screening. Peele has accomplished a lot with a budget of only $3.5 million, and we should expect to see his name more in the future.