Horror is not my favorite movie genre. Perhaps second only to comedy in its high failure to success ratio, it’s hard to navigate the been-there-done-that formulas of the form, to find a way between the Scylla of overwrought gore and the Charybdis of predictable plot turns.
At its best, horror can challenge societal norms or underscore cultural angst. Psycho not only gave us one of the great original plot twists, but was a morality tale of marital infidelity and an unpleasant barometer of its era’s fears of non-binary sexuality. Last year’s The Witch not only brilliantly played the Salem Witch Scare as if it were a supernatural reality, but explored humanity’s never-ending fear of feminine sexuality.
Get Out is a worthy successor to The Witch, as social commentary in the form of horror movie. Like The Witch, it manages this without getting preachy or overbearing; but this time the target of the commentary is American race relations.
Get Out’s main story revolves around a pair of young lovers, with the guy meeting the girl’s parents for the first time. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a NYC-based professional photographer, while Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) is the “good kid” of progressive, well-to-do parents living in upstate New York (we meet her bibulous jerk brother Jeremy later on).
Chris is black, and Rose is white, but she assures him that this won’t be an issue with her folks. After all, her dad would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could have.
Nonetheless, racial tensions percolate from the start of Get Out. The movie opens ominously with a black man walking dark suburban streets in a scene evocative of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Soon after, on their trip out of the city, Chris and Rose have a police encounter that underscores the peril of driving – or even being a passenger – while black.
This strain diminishes only slightly when the pair arrives at the Armitage home. Rose’s dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) quickly brings up his Obamaphilia but heightens the racial awkwardness by dropping Ebonics lingo into the conversation. Missy (Catherine Keener), Rose’s psychiatrist mom, is hardly any better, as she pries overmuch into Chris’ family history.
Even weirder, the vast grounds of the Armitage estate have a 21st Century plantation feel to them, with a black groundskeeper who scowls at Chris and a black maid who keeps a perpetual fake smile on her face even in private.
The strangeness only escalates as the weekend progresses, during Chris’ insomniac wanderings and restless dreaming, then into an afternoon social gathering of Dean and Missy’s longtime friends. Does something sinister lurk behind the groundskeeper’s scowl and the maid’s grin? Does Chris’ restless night prefigure ill intentions behind the Armitages’ efforts at colorblindness?
With Get Out, first-time director Jordan Peele has crafted a terrific blend of suspense, horror, and biting commentary. (Most famous as half of television’s Key and Peele comedic duo, Peele also co-wrote and starred in last year’s slight but enjoyable action comedy Keanu.) Story-wise, Get Out contains enough surprises and twists to keep viewers guessing.
Peele skillfully breaks the tension with comedy, most often in the person of Chris’ best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery). An airport TSA agent who’s house- and dog-sitting for Chris over the weekend, Chris phones Rod periodically when things get too weird at the Armitages’.
Each actor plays his or her part with the utmost skill. Despite fairly lengthy TV careers, Daniel Kaluuya (too many acting roles to name) and Allison Williams (from HBO’s Girls) were unfamiliar to me before Get Out. Both are excellent here, with Kaluuya conveying a range of stoicism, bewilderment, and simmering irritation; while Williams balances validation of her boyfriend’s feelings with dutiful affection for her parents and brother.
I know Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener best for their roles as wholesome, decent grownups (Whitford as stolid Josh Lyman in The West Wing; Keener from great contemporary films like Into the Wild and Begin Again). But in Get Out, they play terrifically against type as subtly creepy members of the 1%.
Jordan Peele is aided as well by Michael Abel’s musical score, its occasional high register strings bringing to mind Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock themes in a manner more homage than rip-off. Get Out’s cinematographer also knows when to zoom in for a suitably claustrophobic feel, while its editor shows a similar savvy in discerning just when to keep the bizarre offscreen and when to bring it front and center.
And despite the near-constant racial tension, the full impact of Peele’s cutting social analysis still crept up on me. Far more by showing than telling, Peele yanks the mask off a nation that is all too willing to claim African-American athletic and artistic accomplishments for itself, while opposing a people’s strivings for equal treatment. (One only needs to look at our country’s devotion to professional sports, then contrast this with the predictably Pavlovian outrage over Colin Kaepernick’s silent kneeling during the National Anthem, to realize the veracity of Peele’s critique.)
It takes a hell of an artist to blend such astute criticism with suspenseful storytelling. It is to Peele’s immense credit that he succeeds.
4 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: Get Out is rated R for “violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references.” Any adult or older teen who loves a good scare but doesn’t wince at a few moderately graphic scenes of violence will find lots to love here.)