by Ken Bakely
Critics, and the general public, have compartmentalized horror as unimportant, which is why it’s so great when a film like Jordan Peele’s Get Out comes along and proves our preconceptions wrong. Maybe the genre has brought it upon itself, because it’s only logical that it would take years to undo the reputational damage caused by the relentless, mechanic churning out of the many slasher franchises of the 1980s. But a good story can come in any form, and you’re quite more likely to be open to stimulus when you’re glued to your seat, all tensed up. This is 103 minutes of momentum and purpose and craft, propelling itself at great speed while affixing a clear set of ideas and sharp creative credits.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a twentysomething black man living in an anonymous American city. His girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), is white, and they’re preparing to visit her family out in a secluded, wealthy suburb. Chris is worried that Rose’s relatives will be startled when they find out about his race, but she assures him that her parents are progressive and welcoming. Everything seems fine at first. Rose’s hypnotherapist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), and neurosurgeon father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), are gentle and kind. Both their groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and maid (Betty Gabriel) are black, but they are open and quick to acknowledge an uncomfortable social dynamic there that other wealthy WASPs might not. Chris is relieved at their warmness, and settles in for the visit, which will involve a gathering of the locals from the neighborhood.
Yet when he begins looking closer, it’s clear that something is off. Whenever he tries to strike up a conversation with the maid, her responses are rigid, clipped, and robotic. She does not engage in a dialogue. The gardener is even stranger – he is mostly silent, and spends the nights sprinting around the estate for seemingly no reason at all. When the neighbors arrive, they marvel at Chris’s ethnicity, and make a series of politely phrased, yet bizarre, comments, admiring his perceived virility and physicality. Missy hypnotizes him one night, ostensibly to help him kick his smoking habit, but forces him to dig up past traumas. This cavalcade of oddities begins building to surreal, dangerous new heights, and Chris begins to suspect that this whole community may be hiding dark, ulterior motives. But by the time he’s able to piece it all together and figure out how to – ahem – get out, it may be too late.
Get Out is a grand satire of the so-called “latte liberal” – affluent, suburban whites who support liberal causes, vote for liberal politicians, and are genuine in their proclaimed liberalism, but fail to actually understand or respect other racial and social groups. They’re the kind of upper class professionals who recoiled at Donald Trump’s brazen campaign trail comments but instinctively lock their car doors when driving into a black neighborhood. Peele examines where these hypocritical mindsets come from, and barrels through to its most extreme outcome. Many of the comments made by the white neighbors are well-meaning, but based on stereotypes. Their actions in general are peculiar, but no one except Chris seems to notice. Using a scenario that many racial minorities are familiar with (being the only non-white person in a social situation), Peele’s worldbuilding is both good for observational comedy, and solid at creating a slow-build of tension that unleashes itself in a killer of a third act.
While it is a film with a message, Get Out does not befall the preachy mindset of many social stories. Undoubtedly, and primarily, this is an expertly crafted thriller, tightly and cleverly written, and directed with wringing efficiency. It’s a smart movie that knows exactly where it’s going and how to get there, but it doesn’t clue in the audience. This train has no brakes, and the journey is lightning-fast and full of surprises. The final scene plays on our expectations of how stories, and society, usually think, but swipes us away at the last second and proves one last time that it’s not satisfied with any type of status quo.
And let’s not forget the acting. Kaluuya’s lead performance is quick-witted, dynamic, and spacious. He and Peele are excellent collaborators, in front of and behind the camera. The script’s words fuel the performance, and the performance gives meaning to the script. Whitford and Keener sink into the parts of articulate, affluent, aloof people whose considered inability to realize that they’re doing anything wrong – even at the climax’s most bombastic heights – provides both astute commentary and great hilarity. A number of supporting characters, in varying roles, provide critical support for the story and are uniquely excellent in serving their parts. The surprises they provide should be discovered by the viewer when watching the movie. But I will say that this is an example of how good a movie can be when everyone is on the same page, held with great attention and a unified message by a good filmmaker.
Contrary to the chasm between the white and black characters onscreen, everyone offscreen has realized what Get Out is trying to be. Here is a clearly defined thesis on a unique facet of contemporary race relations in the United States: the people who pretend that their own self-styled tolerance circumvents any problems and the people on the receiving end of that ignorance. This is an interesting – somewhat specific yet broadly reflective – point of approach in any case, but what makes it so irresistible is that it’s wrapped up in a great story that excels with fantastic rhythm.