Movie Review – Get Out
Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, and Catherine Keener
Barry Jenkin’s quiet and lovely Moonlight told the story of a young black man’s search for identity. In Jordan Peele’s raucous and wickedly on-point satire, Get Out, a confident and self-realized black man fears losing his.
Disguised as a contemporary horror thriller, Get Out deftly marries mass entertainment with provocative social commentary and meaningful symbolism with almost Hitchcock-like success. Its central MacGuffin, to use Hitchcock’s famous term describing a plot device on which the writer and director hang their themes, is the story of Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black man traveling to the countryside with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her wealthy parents on their secluded estate. Concerned that Rose hasn’t informed her parents that he is black, Rose assures him of her parents open-minded bent. “if he could have voted for Obama for a third term, he would have,” she asserts. Chris seems satisfied, but when Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford) repeats the quote himself later in the film, it sounds suspiciously familiar to “some of my best friends are black.”
Once on the estate, Chris is confronted with the kind of creepily vague situations and spooky music that on the surface appear like the usual horror movie clichés. We meet the welcoming parents whose sincerity seems somehow questionable, the black servants who stare at him with forced smiles, and the borderline crazy brother who becomes progressively more unhinged. But the racial element gives these early scenes a unique tension, deftly parodying, the everyday awkwardness of being black in a racist white culture: the preening liberals desperate for black approval, the angry black peers hostile to those who associate with whites, the barely hidden hatred of racists forced by genteel society to behave politely. But the threats are still too vague to pinpoint. Is Chris a paranoid black man who sees racism in everything or is there something truly terrifying underneath the white liberal façade?
Of course we already know Chris’ suspicions are justified. This is a horror film after all. Peele continues to crank up the scares and the racial tension. These are bad, bad people and all of them are white. Peele is parodying the fears of black people who want to see evil in everything white people do as well as the blind ignorance of complacent whites who seem oblivious to the very real concerns of African Americans. It’s final plot revelation is a not-so-subtle metaphor for cultural appropriation and loss of racial identity.
If this all seems a bit heavy, it is…and it isn’t. Despite its serious themes, Get Out is a fun ride. Peele is a comedian first and he understands that satire is about exaggeration. But that exaggeration may be hard for some, (mostly white) members of the audience to grasp. The imitations of horror movie conventions are so accurate and genuinely spooky, the satire so subtle and dry that the comic undertones sometimes get buried in the social commentary. In the end, Peele’s comic stereotypes of crazy white people are so absurd it’s hard to believe that anyone would take them seriously but a quick perusal of comments on the internet show that some do. If the movie sometimes comes off as a big black in-joke, then maybe it is. But it’s not exclusionary. Get Out offers its wry salvation to the black audience first, but also to the white. And if black people can have a sense of humor about the tragedy of racism in America, then surely white people can too. Get Out walks a very thin wire, but it never falls over the edge.
Peele, most famous as the costar of Comedy Central’s Peabody Award-winning sketch comedy series Key and Peele and for his dead-on impression of Barack Obama, has clearly seen every horror film of the past 30 years and Get Out would work alone as a simple visual catalogue of those movies. But the film is full of Peele’s own smart and creepy directorial touches. When Chris is enslaved in a hypnotic trance by Rose’s psychiatrist mother, Peele chillingly depicts him as dangling helplessly in a dark abyss, seeing her and the reality she represents through a tiny screen in the distance. Near the end of the film, Peele’s tight, claustrophobic shots close in on Chris as he tries to escape from the family in a state of panic. And Peele’s inventive filming of a brain surgery is more frightening when it’s suggestive than when it’s graphic.
Peele’s cast of villains is populated with recognizable Hollywood veterans like Stephen Root (News Radio, Office Space), Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and most notably Catherine Keener (Oscar nominee for Being John Malcovich), as Rose’s mother. But the entire film rests on the back of the largely unknown Kaluuya’s Chris. Kaluuya strikes a perfect balance between wary suspicion and the amiably reasonable. Handsome, charming, and movie-millennial sophisticated, he’s the perfect protagonist for this loaded allegorical tale. If he had come off as even a touch angry, white audiences would cry foul, too weak and black audiences might have seen him as a stereotyped pushover. It’s the kind of challenge no white actor would ever be expected to fulfill, but it’s utterly necessary to pull off the tightrope act Peele attempts here.
The best horror films, or at least the ones that resonate the most in American culture, tend to play on underlying human fears that we all share – the terrifying consequences of science and those who play god (Frankenstein), the dark beast residing in the human soul (Dracula and The Wolf Man), and the Post-Hiroshima era’s giant radiation-enlarged insects that crawled across endless movie screens. In the decades after the Manson murders, brutal serial killers stabbed and slashed their way into our collective consciousness. And today, in the increasingly global 21st century, fears of devastating pandemics fuel countless stories about disease-carrying zombies. Ingenious and authentically scary, Get Out brings a tangible comic voice to the daily fears and anxieties of African Americans and gives us white folk an entertaining and thought-provoking insight into the black experience in a sadly polarized America.