by Michael Henley
Get Out, the new horror film by Jordan Peele, is a movie that revels in pointed, double-barreled signifiers. The first comes right at the top. We open on a suburban street, where a young black man (Keith Stanfield, from TV’s Atlanta) is lost, the camera gliding through and peeking at him voyeuristically. A car pulls into the street, turns around and begins to follow the young man. It’s noticed. “Yeah, not today,” he whispers (with all the dread of a man who sees this unsettling act as a natural escalation of his day to day). He turns around himself. But he is too late, as he is about to discover when an assailant leaps out of the darkness, beats him and pulls him into the trunk of the car, all while an unnervingly jaunty tune (“Run, Rabbit, Run” by Flannagan and Allen) spills out over the radio. Roll opening credits.
A savvy audience receives the message right well that we are now in the film land of nightmares, and the touches here are ones that echo the work of John Carpenter’s besieged babysitters and countless other horror movies (that Flannagan and Allen bit is pure David Lynch in its knack at marrying the sinister with the cornpone). But Peele is also quite deliberately evoking real life horror stories here, specifically countless accounts of young men who were driving (or walking…or existing) while black, and who had the misfortune of paying the price. Peele wants us to be thinking not of just the Laurie Strodes of the world, but the Treyvon Martins: the people, both fictional and not, whose very existence by definition plants them at the center of a neverending horror story. And at the risk of sounding like a liberal snowflake, if you don’t get that, you’re not paying attention.
Peele, of course, is the other half of the great comedy team Key and Peele, and on their brilliant Comedy Central sketch show, the two often walked that delicate knife’s-edge between slick entertainment and blistering critique, smuggling keen observations about race and culture through comedy and pop parody. Even the pair’s film last spring, Keanu, though uneven, held some sharp, considered opinions on being black in America. Get Out is Peele’s directorial debut (he also scripted), and you might think a trip to the horror well is a departure for the guy (dead-on horror parodies from the show aside). But you’d be wrong, because comedy and horror are genres more similar than they sometimes let on (both rely on suspense, sudden releases of tension and escalations designed to enjoy absurdities). And here Peele uses his instincts to make a horror comedy where the two genres are working in concert to such a degree that that becomes part of the joke. And the horror.
The lynchpin of the film is Daniel Kaluuya, who you may remember from starring in “Fifteen Million Merits,” one of the most affecting of all Black Mirror episodes, or perhaps more recently as Emily Blunt’s put-upon partner in Sicario. He here plays Chris, a successful photographer with an adoring girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams, from Girls). They’ve been together for five months, and now it’s time to meet her family upstate so off they go for a weekend. Chris, shall we say, is a good sport who adopts a fearless façade, but his concerns peak through. “Do they know that I’m black?” “Should they?” she says, good-naturedly. Chris isn’t so comfortable.
Oh, she claims he has nothing to worry about. Her parents are enlightened liberals who “would’ve voted for Obama a third time if they could have.” It’ll be fine. Why are you so worried, Chris? Why, it’d have practically been racist for her to even give advance warning to the fam that you’re black! Right? Rose is nothing if not “woke,” as they say. During their trip up, a deer smashes into their windshield, frighteningly. A conversation with a highway patrolman then turns uncomfortable—Rose is quick to stick up for her man against racial slights, and Chris’ bemused reaction says it all: that’s sweet, but it’s almost naïve of you to bother.
Rose’s family lives in a mansion recessed into the woods. No neighbors as far as the eye. Mom and dad are played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, exactly the two people who you would cast if you wanted Rose’s parents to be likable and good-natured. But they come off somewhere between clueless and patronizing when welcoming Chris. Dad regales him with old family stories about Jesse Owens between a chorus of “m’man”s and “thang”s, while mom’s stares are just a little too piercing, a little too insidious. There’s a sealed up basement (“black mold,” it’s explained, a little too freely). There’s a younger brother (Caleb Landry Jones) who taunts Caleb at the dinner table with what a great MMA fighter he could be. Mom, a hypnotherapist, keeps offering Chris a free session to rid him of his smoking habit. There’s a housekeeper and maid (Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel) who are both black, and dad is aware of the optics (“I hate the way it looks,” he confesses). But Chris is not exactly unsettled because they’re black—it’s more because they behave like vacant pod people, except they get up to some strange behavior at night when they think no one’s looking.
Then things get weird.
We’re used to horror movies where characters dismiss the warning signs. The genius of Get Out is that it folds its protagonist’s fears into real-life anxieties and our own tendency to excuse the values that raised us (or others) without close inspection. Sure, Chris is uncomfortable, but the point, quietly made, is that being the only person of color in a crowded room is fundamentally uncomfortable…or at least we as a society sure do make it that way. Rose, in private, mentions to Chris she’s aghast at some of her parents’ behavior, but she sees it as harmless. The more Chris investigates, the more he sees omnious threats, and then he keeps halfway trying to convince himself that he’s skittish from culture shock. And Rose, as a sounding board, vacillates between vindicating his fears (but modulating them) and dismissing them out of hand. But things keep getting worse, like a garden party where Chris is sized up like meat, and later on his encounter with the single other black man in the community (Stanfield again) goes…poorly.
To spoil any more of the twists and surprises in Get Out (including its deliriously bonkers third act) would be highly unfair (the movie’s secret will not exactly be new ground to anyone familiar with a certain breed of horror film, but that’s fine). So let’s just say that Peele has made a highly effective horror film—one that plays fair, is well-structured, and rewards future viewings with its tendency to smuggle crucial forshadowing inside innocent-seeming bits. But Peele has also made a striking comedy about race relations, exemplified not just by Chris’ understated, bewildered reactions to growing insanity, but also through his calls to his friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery, very funny), a TSA worker who, by warning Chris from the start about attending a gathering of white people, ends up speaking for the audience via his wack-a-doodle conspiracy theories. which grow increasingly well-advised).
And he’s also made a toothy and vicious satire sending up racism, but not the redneck kind. No, Peele’s true target is white limousine liberals who talk about progressivism but load their words with microaggresions, who smugly claim to love black people as long as they (the whites) retain power. And, the movie suggests, they key difference between plantation days, where black men were valued and coveted by whites for their strength and their bodies, and today is that today the same people are just better at hiding their intolerance. It’s a horror film that picks as its villains those who claim “All Lives Matter” or “I’m not racist, but…” (Friendly tip: if you ever start a sincere statement with “I’m not racist, but…” you are very probably about to disprove yourself.)
This is risky, gutsy, bold stuff, and for a first-time director Peele pulls off something remarkable here. He has a good visual eye and a willingness to enter the surreal (like when Chris is put under hypnosis and falls into a void, Under the Skin-style). His helming is never less than astonishingly assured, as he juggles tones, milks every moment for maximum effect and, like Hitchcock used to say, plays the audience like a piano. Two pianos, you could say, because while the horror movie is happening, the comedy is still going, approaching the material from consistently unexpected directions. But Peele is also smart in his strategy: though he frequently goes for the outrageous juxtoposed with the horrific, even during the whirlwind finale, he never miscalculates on what will undercut him. There’s never a joke that breaks the reality or elbows the tension in the ribs. Never a bone that Peele throws to the audience to tell us that, aww gee, I was just kidding. Because in every way that matters: no, he’s not.
The cast is sensationally chosen. Kaluuya turns in a star-making performance, and he’s onscreen for practically every scene. He gets the material down to its bones, finding the reality within Chris: the guy who in a tense social situation, practically volunteers to be the one who defuses it, because that’s what expected of him, and who carefully navigates the series of bewildering challenges this weekend provides. Whitford and Keener are so good at playing close to the chest, and although Jones is more over the top, that, too, has its function within the story, and you’ll never look at a lacrosse stick the same way. Williams is an ingenious little bit of casting, playing on our expectations and then subverting them with what I can only call true actor’s bravery. You may know what I mean—the kind of performance where you can’t help but think that an actor is making big choices and doesn’t seem interested in overprotecting their image. Also on hand: the invaluable Stephen Root, who stands out among the lily-white crowd at the family party as a genuine friend to Chris, and then slips him some crucial information, although arguably maybe not at the best time.
Halfway through Get Out, I was struck with how successfully the movie had put its hooks in me and how good it was. How smart and well-constructed it was, made not just love but with urgency. A “message” movie that joins its thoughts within a sturdy pop framework, so that something that needs to be heard can be received in a way millions and millions want to hear (this is perhaps the trickiest thing for a socially conscious filmmaker to achieve). This is a film that was born under the twilight years of the Obama presidency, and to say it plays somewhat differently now than it did a year ago is an understatement. In the years to come, we’re going to need movies like this one: stories that look us as a society in the eye and talk to us straight. If, like Get Out, they can do it within the context of a superior genre entertainment, then so much the better.
Rewind: The Edge of Seventeen (2017)
What a wonderful movie this is. Hailee Steinfeld is Nadine, a strident and unpopular kid burdened with a family tragedy (the loss of her dad many years ago) and a scattershot home life, made all the more unbearable for the moment when her sole good friend (Haley Lu Richardson) and her brother (Blake Jenner) begin hooking up. How Nadine reacts and what happens next is like the most honest and empathetic teen movie John Hughes never got a chance to make, teeming with deeply-felt emotions, a stark authenticity and a frankness about alcohol, sex, friendships and depression that rings straight and true, and is far beyond the standard teen nonsense about who or who is not going to the prom. Woody Harrelson, as Nadine’s above-it-all teacher who refuses to talk down to her, much to her often dismay, is a wry standout.
In structure, it’s a movie that reminds you of Jason Reitman’s Juno (but with the quippy snark cut down by three quarters) in that it’s about a wise-beyond-her-years know it all who is also pretentious and full of herself and a bit of pill, but lovable anyways, and detailing a special time in her life where she discovers she truly needs to grow up, instead of just staying in the phony “grown-up” mode she thinks she’s in. Kelly Fremon Craig, the director and writer, has made a sympathetic and funny teen comedy that for me, rates as an instant classic in the genre.