Right off the top: as a rule, I hate horror movies, and nearly always have. Some people get off on being thrilled in a cinema seat, by having their worst nightmares played out in front of them, but I am certainly not one of those people. I will go out of my way to avoid horror films whenever I can. So, how did I end up seeing this then, Jordan Peele’s first directorial feature? Blame the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, that had Get Out as its surprise film on its final day. Not unlike a standard horror premise, I was the one trapped in an experience I initially was worried about as the first scene unfolded: was Get Out a darkly comedic tour de force that the director is usually associated with, or the kind of off-putting jump scare fest that so marks the genre?
African-American photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) travels upstate to visit the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams) for the first time. Mild awkwardness abounds as Chris deals with the reaction to the inter-racial relationship, until a succession of increasingly disturbing incidents unveils a sinister side to Rose’s family.
Get Out is a singular experience, at once making me quite scared and at others moments making me laugh out loud, and quite loud too. It’s unique twist on the standard horror set-up – this time, it’s the black guy who is the stranger in an increasingly strange land – seems like the kind of thing ripe for a Key and Peele send-up, but Get Out is firstly and primarily a very effective chiller, that manages to offer pertinent commentary on the current state of race relations in America in a very engaging manner.
Horror often works best when it takes an issue and maximizes it, exaggerates, blows it up to ridiculous proportion, making the genre a grim sort of satirical platform. Fear of violent street crime in The Purge, STI’s in It Follows, the lingering effects of depression in The Babadook, the list goes on and on. Get Out chooses for its issue the way that white people approach black people and black culture in predominantly white surrounds, and why the evident behaviour is a problem, and it does it in a spectacular way.
It’s a slippery but inevitable slope. A local cop demands to see Chris’ ID for no reason after Rose hits a deer. Chris arrives and deals with the inevitable “My man” from Rose’s very white bread family, who happen to have a black maid and a black groundskeeper. The father (Bradley Whitford) very unsubtly talks about how much he admires Barack Obama, the epitome of a middle-class liberal trying to showcase his progressive credentials. Later, her drunk brother talks about how Chris’ “genetics” make him built for a UFC career. In a family re-union, the comments on Chris are about the size of his muscles (and other body parts), how “cool” it is to be black and awkwardly shaking hands with an offered fist bump. Perverse objectification, gradual de-humanisation, it’s all here, and the beauty of Get Out in its depiction of this is how it allows the audience to experience it as if we were Chris.
This is all good enough, but it’s in the way that Peele ups the ante at a constant level that Get Out finds its strength. The black “staff” are stand-offish and creepy. Rose’s mother is a psychiatrist with a penchant for invasive hypnotherapy. One of the family’s friends has a black husband 30 years younger than her who acts strangely. And bit by bit, scene by scene, the tension is ratcheted up as Chris slowly begins to think that he’s at the centre of a very warped situation, where white appropriation of black culture and white comfortableness with black people being dependent on black people acting like white people is taken to a horrifying extreme. And, like the deer he hits on the car journey to Rose’s home, maybe Chris should be running away as fast as he can. Early on Whitford’s character muses happily, on his varied travels, ““It’s such a privilege to be able to experience another person’s culture.” Later it becomes clear that this was a chilling preamble. Like all horror movies, Get Out is at its best when setting up and presenting its central mystery, and maybe not so good once the big reveal is made, but the journey to get there is still one I was surprisingly enthralled with.
Daniel Kaluuya isn’t someone I’m all that familiar with, but I’m impressed by him on the basis of Get Out, where he has to channel the kind of energy James Stewart had in Vertigo or more recently with Leonardo Di Caprio in Shutter Island: that of a man trying to convince others, and maybe himself, that he isn’t going crazy and that bad things really are happening all around him. After all, he’s the black guy in a horror movie, traditionally slated to die first: Kaluuya takes that trope and applies it to the African-American experience in general, giving off a nervousness from his very first scene, positing that he might be chased off with a shotgun when he arrives at his girlfriend’s house (if only, as it turns out). Playing the odd man out in a story with heavy racial allegories is a big task, but Kaluuya rises to it very well, giving Chris a suitable initial meekness that gradually changes into something else, saying volumes in every moment of silent reaction to the racism of others. Sequences where he remembers his deceased mother or the third act revelations allow him to chance to emote more traditionally: he does a great job, ably playing off William’s more reserved Rose or the other denizens of the upstate surrounds, most notably Whitford’s Dad (channelling more than a little of The Cabin In The Woods) or Stephen Root as a blind relative of Rose’s.
What makes Get Out especially interesting are the extra steps it takes in its faux-demonisation of white people, as if to playfully mock the predominantly white audience that will be viewing the film. Jump scare strings erupt when black characters walk into frame in the background doing nothing especially scary. At a family reunion, everyone arrives in a black Merc. Rose’s Dad reveals her grandfather missed out on going to the 1936 Olympics because of Jesse Owens, taking the opportunity for another bit of overcompensation in his treatment of Chris (and setting up something very important for later). Chris’ friend repeatedly posits that the strange behaviour of Rose’s family probably means they are in the sex slave trade. But when the film wants to get scary, boy does it scary, most seriously in a set of sequences set in the suitably described “Sunken Place”, where Peele demonstrates his understanding that abstract concepts are more chilling than direct physical danger.
Less subtle is the violence that encapsulates the films conclusion, that calls to mind the likes of Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight in its efforts to act as a cipher for black anger at white oppression, a revenge fantasy you cheer on because of the unreality of it, a far-cry from a Trayvon Martin-esque encounter in the opening scene that seems all too real: an innocent young black man waylaid on a suburban footpath for no other reason than he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps a worse horror than anything Peele can come up with.
Where Get Out somewhat goes off the rails is in its efforts to be both a horror and a comedy, mainly through the aforementioned friend, TSA agent Rod (Lil Rey Howley), so black as to be a black stereotype. Rod is removed from the majority of the action but provides entertaining and hilarious asides in phone calls to Chris, and when he enacts his own investigation of what’s going on later (that culminates in a truly special trip to the local police station)). The problem is that, while funny, these cutaways serve to drain some of the tension from the primary part of the story. This might well have been Peele’s mission, and the point of his script, but I do feel like Get Out isn’t all it could have been in the horror stakes because of the constant need to insert those laughs, as funny as they frequently are. This isn’t like the quip problem that a lot of Hollywood blockbusters have nowadays, but more likely a case of a comedic artist like Peele being unable to seperate himself entirely from his base.
His script is still quite intelligently written though. The Rod stuff is pure comedy, from the moment he first opines that the lack of frisking for elderly people at the airport means that the next 9/11 will be carried out by an OAP, all the way to his stumbling attempts to explain his radical theories on sex slavery to a Police detective. There’s an intelligence to it all as well though, namely in how Rod anchors Chris in the world he came from even as he gets drawn deeper into the dangerous world of the Armitage family. In this house, there’s a distinctiveness to all of the characters: the overcompensating father, the intense mother, the disturbed brother and the sweetly naïve Rose, with Chris right at the centre of it all. The scripts commentary on race is meshed so well with the chills that you find yourself surprised at how the film is engaging your brain even as it does the same with your “Fight or Flight” reflex.
Peele directs his debut simply enough: in terms of the visual direction and pacing, I was most impressed with his skill in melding the appropriate moments with the appropriate musical beats from a score that is as horror-centric as it comes. Get Out has a fixation on faces, and especially on eyes, that frequently get intense close-ups at crucial moments. This kind of fixed point framing, in line with the jaunting music and the increasing creepiness of the premise, successfully imbues a lot of frames with this disconcerting, discombobulated feeling, that Get Out needs to rise above the inherent zaniness of its plot. The production is restrained enough, as you would expect from a Blumhouse film. Low-budget horror with almost no extras or frills is their bread and butter (a fascinating piece here on how they work) and Get Out is more likely to follow the path of Insidious and Sinister than the host of forgotten efforts they routinely roll the dice on.
Get Out then subverted and exceeded my expectations in almost every way. It’s a horror film that I actually enjoyed for one thing, but much more importantly, it’s a horror film that made me think. I’ve rarely seen the issue of race in American approached with this much aplomb and inventiveness in film, and all from a debut director as well. Perhaps it should have just picked one of comedy and horror to focus on as occasionally the blending is counter-productive, but that’s forgivable in a film that so evocatively tackles the issue of race relations, and dares to paint a picture where black and white may not end up hand in hand in the end, and may indeed be intrinsically divided by our prejudices. It’s a good cast, a good script and Peele has the chops to make a fine director. It made me, someone who shies away from this genre as a rule, quite satisfied. It’s due for general release this month, and you should help make sure it becomes the hit it deserves to be. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).