Written and Directed by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, and Bradley Whitford
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"If there's too many white people, I get nervous."
Get Out is an existential horror film in the purest, most literal sense of the term. At its most basic level, Jordan Peele’s stunning, vital debut is preoccupied with the horror of simply existing in an unsafe place—which, if you’re a black in America, is everywhere. Horror films often transport protagonists to strange, alienating spaces, but what Peele supposes is that African-Americans need not travel very far—they’re practically surrounded by the terror of their own existence. No place is safe—not the suburbs, that supposedly idyllic setting sometimes inexplicably visited upon by horrors, and definitely not the rural countryside, which has always been a foreboding haunt in this genre. Peele visits both in Get Out, stranding various characters in each, consistently reinforcing just how isolating both can be—for him, there’s very distinction between the two. Either brings an overwhelming desire get out, to flee to whatever safety can even exist.
We open in the former setting—a seemingly innocuous suburb*, where a black man finds himself walking alone at night, tightening his hoodie and murmuring to himself at every turn. The specter of George Zimmerman is unmistakable when a car begins trailing him, prompting him to quickly dart in the opposite direction. It’s no help: a masked man swiftly exits and savagely abducts his victim, who is never seen or heard from again. Just like that—another black life lost simply because it apparently had the gall to exist. Acting as both a prelude and Peele’s thesis statement this sequence conveys the weird, off-putting vibe of Get Out, a film that pushes black anxieties to their most literal—but still affecting—extremes. Maybe every stroll through the suburbs doesn’t end like this, but it doesn’t make the angst surrounding it any less genuine.
Likewise, each interracial relationship doesn’t take on the extremely fucked up tenor of the one that eventually unfolds on screen here. And yet, you sense the dread and apprehension Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has as he prepares to visit his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison William) family for the first time. They don’t even know he’s black, though Rose assures him it won’t be a problem since her parents don’t have a racist bone in their bodies. For a while, this proves to be true, though both the audience and Chris immediately suspect Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford & Catherine Keener) are laying it on a bit too thick.
He’s all too eager to proclaim that Obama was the best president of his lifetime during a tour of the house that also includes him proudly pointing out his father was beaten out by Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic qualifiers. Meanwhile, she’s practically jumping at the opportunity to hypnotize him and cure him of his awful smoking habit. It’s unnerving in its obvious pandering, and suffocating sense of condescension only grows more nightmarish when Chris discovers he’s visiting just in time for a giant family gathering. Suddenly, Rose’s meat-headed brother—who honestly looks exactly like the type of guy who would post on a white supremacist website—is crashing the place, a grim harbinger of the nest of WASPs that will descend upon the place the next day.
Peele has such a masterful grasp of the tone that Get Out barely needs overt horror elements to unsettle the audience. In the early-going, this stuff is mostly confined to the strange behavior of the family’s two black groundskeepers and Chris’s bizarre late-night encounter with Rose’s mom that ends with him being hypnotized. Something is definitely off about this shit in that very specific Stepford Wives manner: no matter how perfect the Armitages make this seem, it is most definitely not. And in many ways, it’s again that sense of condescension that unsettles—even as Michael Abels’s slinking, jingling score ramps up and Peele’s imagery becomes more visibly strange, Chris’s interactions with this set of very white, very racist partygoers is panic-inducing.
I imagine everything Chris experiences here has rung true for many African-Americans at some point or another: the casually racist jokes, the patronizing attempts at praising his physical attributes, the inappropriate sexual advances. In a vacuum, this would be totally uncomfortable; within the context of Get Out’s mounting tension, they take on a positively sinister quality. Through it all, Chris can only smile and nod, though Kaluuya’s perceptive turn reveals a dimension of thinly-veiled resentment. “This shit again,” you can practically see him trying to stifle beneath the demure façade he’s perfected after enduring a lifetime of these humiliating moments. The true terror of resting at the heart of Get Out is this systematic expectation of this dynamic: here’s a black guy on parade, reduced to an object of fascination for clueless white people.
Eventually, it all becomes too much—if the obvious racism weren’t enough, the strange behavior of the other, lone black attendee truly sounds the alarm. Something’s wrong, and that overwhelming urge signaled by the film’s title boils to the surface, with its meta implications proving to be true: here’s a horror movie where the protagonist is quick to catch on and attempts to get the fuck out of dodge before the trap is sprung. Even still—for all his instincts and wit—Chris falls prey once Peele begins to literalize his humiliating dehumanization by twisting Get Out into a full-blown freak-out. Nowhere is safe, not even Chris’s own mind, which is warped into a weapon against him. Even worse, a man who hasn’t been able to be comfortable in his own skin suddenly has white people jumping at the opportunity to crawl into it without offering so much as an explanation.
This is how racism tends to work, and Peele blows it up to unhinged, subversive proportions in Get Out. It’s a sharp send-up that’s always a step ahead of its audience yet never feels the need to wallow in its own cleverness. As wild as it gets—and believe me when I say it goes pretty far out there—its subtlety allows its brilliance to creep up on you. In the process, it deploys some familiar smokescreens, particularly in the form of Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery), Chris’s friend who doubles as both the audience surrogate and Greek chorus. He’s all of us who’s seen one too many of these things and immediately keys in on how bizarre the situation even though he’s miles away, housesitting for Chris. While he doesn’t nail down the particulars (not that he could, given how wild they end up being), he’s the first to pick up on the nefarious vibe surrounding this whole get-together. It makes for both terrific dramatic irony and raucous laughter, especially when he deadpans his theory to a room of detectives stunned into disbelief before succumbing to the hysterics of it all.
On its face, it all points to a farcical takedown; however, Peele ultimately opts for a more restrained, clever reworking rather than outright deconstruction. Many familiar genre signposts are guiding Get Out, from paranoiac thrillers like The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby to the confrontational satires of Larry Cohen. But somewhere in between—perhaps lurking just below this surface—is a preoccupation with reclaiming the early, pre-Romero zombie mythology as a source of black terror. Where films like White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie insisted that the most horrifying thing in the world was for a white woman to succumb to the exotic horrors of Haitian zombie lore, Peele reminds us that this fear has always haunted black people and continues to do so. Get Out practically inverts the dynamic by having an African-American man endure the torture of losing one’s soul to sinister forces.
Likewise, the shadow of Duane Jones’s landmark performance in Night of the Living Dead looms large. Who is Chris Washington but another Ben, another black man whose decency and existence is constantly threatened by white people? It’s impossible not to think of the grim, inevitable fate that character suffered as Get Out creeps to its own seemingly inescapably disturbing conclusion. Peele is so acutely aware of genre—and more disturbingly, real life—expectations that he manipulates the audience into bracing for a sucker punch before his sense of humor delivers one of the most crowd-pleasing moments found in any horror film. It turns out that Howery’s character provides both the laugh track and Peele’s ultimate trump card: in one deft stroke, he manages to repurpose two major pillars of black cinematic representation by reclaiming these zombie movie tropes.
Reclamation seems to be Peele’s ultimate preoccupation here: satirizing and needling racism is an obvious aim, but carving out a distinctly black niche into this genre seems to be just as pertinent. What You’re Next did for the “Final Girl” trope, Get Out does for the (arguably overblown) notion that the black guy always dies first in a horror movie. Not only does this not happen, Peele subverts it in rousing fashion, as the climax here plays out as a wicked act of retribution. The leering, smug Amritages (particularly Williams, who does an increasingly sinister riff on her Girls persona) become avatars of white privilege just aching to be sliced, pummeled, and gutted.
In fact, it almost feels too easy and possibly even a bit anticlimactic until you realize there’s a well-deserved righteousness to it all—in fact, it might count as one of Peele’s best jokes. One of the bits of racism running throughout insists on Chris’s assumed physical prowess (“with the right training, you could be a beast,” the brother declares at the dinner table), and it turns out that they’re goddamn right. Unfortunately for the Armitages—but very fortunate for an audience begging to see the the families entrails dangle from their stomachs—they learn this in the most brutal manner imaginable. It’s the stuff of raucous, gory splatter movies channeled through the cathartic fury of a people who have too often been on the other end of this genre’s skewers.
I won’t deny that much of the appeal of Get Out rests in the extreme satisfaction of watching racists get blown away by shotgun blasts, but to only approach it on that level underestimates what a sharp film this is. Peele exhibits the skills of a genuine master, balancing unsettling tension, laughs, gory shocks, and fucked-up story developments with aplomb. It’s not just the product of someone who has obviously watched a bunch of horror movies and churned out his obligatory riff—it’s the deeply impassioned response of an artist who internalized those influences and turned them inside-out in the service of a primal wail he’s been waiting to deliver his entire life.
Perched in our current political climate, where the sickening tendrils of racism creep more obviously with each passing day, Get Out explodes like a bomb. Peele isn’t just here to needle—here’s here to fucking provoke, to remind us what powerful exploitation cinema can accomplish. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder that art needs to be confrontational and force us to recognize the horrors the horrors surrounding us—especially those that may be completely foreign to those of us whose privileged skin color allows it. “Get out” isn’t just an on-the-nose desire within the movie: it’s the existential howl of a people longing for an escape made virtuously impossible by their own skin. Sometimes, the only way out is through the cinematic catharsis that only comes with a white supremacist being impaled by deer antlers.
*It could have only been my eyes seeing what they wanted to see, but one of the houses looming in the background here is a dead ringer for the Elm Street house. A nice nod, perhaps.
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