OnScreen Chief Film Critic
Jordan Peele is best known as half of the comedy duo of Key & Peele, the popular sketch show on Comedy Central. Before that, he cut his teeth on MADtv for 5 years. He also co-wrote and starred in Keanu, last year’s R-rated comedy about an adorable little kitten. On its face, then, it’s somewhat of a departure that Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, is a horror film. It quickly becomes evident while watching it, though, that Get Out is not just a horror but also a unique piece of social satire.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a photographer, and his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) are packing for a trip to meet her parents. Chris is apprehensive because Rose has not told them that he is black. Rose assures him that everything will be fine. If maybe a bit overbearing, her parents mean well. Her dad “would have voted for Obama a third time if he could.” Upon arriving at their countryside home, they are warmly greeted by her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage. Initial awkwardness, which can mostly be explained by becoming acquainted with the new boyfriend, slowly gives way to other things that seem slightly off and begin to give Chris the impression that something is not right.
Peele’s has crafted a horror film that is sure to be a genre classic. My favorite horror films are not the ones that are focused on the blood and gore and getting the cheap thrills (as fun as those can be). Rather, I prefer the ones that keep me guessing, that create an atmosphere of mounting tension and dread, and leave things to the imagination. Get Out has a high quotient of this. From the opening scene of a black man (the terrific Lakeith Stanfield of FX’s Atlanta) lost walking in a suburban, presumably white, neighborhood and being stalked by a vehicle, the sense of unease begins to build about what exactly is going on in this film. When that character later re-appears later in the film as though nothing has happened, things become more uncertain.
That uncertainty is multiplied by the fact that Keener’s Missy is a psychiatrist who treats patients with hypnosis. When she hypnotizes Chris to help him quit smoking, and the manner in which Peele films it, with a sudden scene shift that implies a loss of time, all bets are off because it is now in the mind of the audience that the main character cannot trust his own mind and body going forward. This scene between Kaluuya and Keener where she unwittingly hypnotizes him as he recounts the loss of his mother as a child is the best scene in the movie and is absolutely riveting because it is so calm in delivery yet full of tension beneath the surface. The image of Chris sitting in his chair completely paralyzed retelling this story he’d rather not share as tears run down his face leaves an impression.
It’s impossible to see this film and not think of the racial tensions that have boiled to the surface in this country over the last few years. There is an early scene involving a police officer after Rose and Chris hit a deer with their car that obviously speaks to the racial double standard that police have toward people of color. A fancy lawn party of family and friends reveals the social awkwardness of old white people trying to interact with a young black man. Peele is no stranger to this experience, coming from a bi-racial family and him being engaged to Chelsea Peretti. That’s not to say that any of the commentary of the film is autobiographical, but there are anxieties that persist, and with good reason, for people who are in relationships like that. After all, it’s only been 50 years since Loving vs. Virginia struck down anti-miscegenation laws. Of course, these racial tensions have deep roots in our nation, sadly, and even though Peele keeps the audience disoriented and guessing for most of the film as to what exactly is going on, he subtly lays the groundwork for the ultimate reveal early on through a seemingly innocuous family anecdote. That anecdote ends up serving as an important reminder that while this film may have been borne out of the news of recent time, the animating forces behind these events go back beyond just recent news headlines.
Also, part of what makes this film’s horror so effective is that Chris is suspicious, but there is the question of whether these oddities that are setting off red flags in his head are just attributable to how white people in a slightly different part of the country behave. There is a cultural barrier that can exist, between white people and black people, even between city people and country folk. This is part of how the social satire of Get Out is so effective and sometimes funny. For Chris, the question lingers as to whether these white people are just weird or is it something more? As his friend Rod (played hilariously by LilRel Howery) openly wonders, maybe it’s some weird white sex slave thing.
Get Out was made on a meager budget of $4.5 million dollars. It has really connected with audiences thanks to its captivating story that draws you in because you want to know what is really happening. Like many horror films of the past, like Night of the Living Dead or The Stepford Wives, it possesses sharp social commentary. The beginning of the year can be a pretty dry period for theatrical releases. Released in theaters in late February, Get Out is the first film of 2017 that made me take notice and pencil it into my year-end list. There are still many films that could bump it down, but it has a strong chance to wind up being talked about by many people end of the year. And I suspect it will achieve a certain level of notoriety in the genre as one of the best horror films of this decade.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars