I’m not super up on Key and Peele so I don’t really know the work of Jordan Peele but I have a feeling now that I should get acquainted. I saw Keanu and thought it was a bit similar to Pineapple Express but otherwise pretty good, and I’m aware of some of the most famous sketches Key and Peele have done. Mostly, though, I entered into Get Out without a lot of preconceived notions about Peele as a filmmaker. After Get Out, I’ve gotta say that I hope the rumors he has several more thematically similar movies planned are true.
Get Out plays like an homage to classic low-key horror from the 70’s and 80’s, movies that were big on atmosphere and low on flashy effects or obvious scares. I didn’t find Get Out to be particularly “scary” but that hardly matters. I think a horror movie doesn’t have to be scary in a visceral “looking over your shoulder at on the walk home” kind of way to be effective, and besides it is possible that non-white viewers will find it much more viscerally scary than I did as a viewer who passes for white and has not had to deal with the kind of shit that happens. That said, Get Out is incredibly unsettling and creepy, especially since it is punctuated by expertly placed comedy, like little release valves that tease some of the tension away just so Peele can double down on it a scene or two later. You’d never know this was Peele’s first horror movie, especially since humor in horror is a difficult rope to walk for even veteran filmmakers and it’s walked so very well here. Get Out is already one of the best movies of the year, and will probably go down as a hugely fresh perspective in horror, a genre that is at once welcoming and desperate for them.
Ultimately, Get Out is getting notice less for being a horror movie and more for being a movie that uses horror to discuss race. It’s worth noting that the way it’s a horror movie seems to be a seamless hybrid of horror from an urban black perspective (and urban is not here intended to be code for “street”) and classic atmospheric horror. The racial commentary is well constructed, wryly illustrated in dialogue and the premise/playing out of the story, and is unflinchingly confrontational without being polemic (and therefore much more difficult for assholes to dismiss). Some of its humor and perspective reminded me of the similarly clever Atlanta, so if you dig that but don’t usually like horror, this still might be a movie for you.
SPOILERS ARE POISON FOR HORROR MOVIES, SO QUIT READING NOW.
In some ways, this film feels like a long sketch gone horribly and hilariously wrong.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) for about five months and things are getting serious enough for her to invite him back to her parents’ place in upstate New York (I can only assume). He is nervous that they’ll be kind of weird about his being black, especially because Rose says she never told them. She dismisses his nervousness, referring to their bumbling liberal values and he somewhat reluctantly goes along with it. He likes this girl, he knows meeting the parents has gotta happen sometime, and all this plays out like a pretty regular scene from a dramedy or romantic comedy about relationships. Except for that its preceded by a quietly piercing scene where a black man (Lakeith Stanfield, who also plays my favorite character from Atlanta) looking for a friend’s address is “randomly” abducted by a dude in a mask. The neighborhood looks uncomfortably white, like the car the attacker drives, and none of that is an accident but it’s just subtle enough. Subtle enough that any viewers still possessed of the notion that this is just another horror movie (but with more black folks than usual) can keep that notion going a little longer. To the extent that this movie was made to be at least aware of white audiences, Peele seems loathe to give away the conceit of his movie too quickly. Better for the ignorant viewer to slowly internalize what they are seeing and hearing.
That said, even as early as the first meeting with Rose’s very white parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), you start to develop a sense of where Peele is going with this movie, or at least how he is going to get there. Dean makes several comments (his attitude to deer, in particular, when the movie takes time to show how Chris empathizes with the deer they hit) that could seem innocent on their surface, but felt coded and vaguely threatening. My sense of this was that Chris, who seems to want to just keep his head down and get through the bullshit, would notice those things but have to choose between reacting to them (prompting drama with his girlfriend’s parents) and ignoring them as perhaps being products of his own sensitivities. That’s a trap, a kind of self-inflicted gas-lighting that masquerades as self-awareness and self-checking. I think this is something that will be immediately recognizable and insightful for viewers who go through this or are, like me, at least aware of it. I think that’s an early signal of the level Peele is operating on throughout this film, which is absolutely rich with this kind of layered meaning. The one way I can relate to it is when I’m around wealthy people and sometimes wonder if my being different is being subtly called up in their comments and questions. There’s actually a dimension of class in the movie: though Chris is a successful photographer who seems to be living a comfortable life in an expensive city, the Armitages are a whole other thing.
Keener has never been really creepy in a movie before. Didn’t know she had this in her!
More overly threatening is Rose’s brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). If I can pause to give this movie a quick nitpick, it would be this character. Jeremy is wild and angry and demented (he’s the guy who chokes out Stanfield’s character at the beginning), and the performance works for that but it is also infused with hamming that seems to be a clumsy attempt by Caleb Landry Jones to be super actorly. Here, his voice and accent choices (completely different from his family’s) are just distracting and play like he’s in a different movie from everybody else. I didn’t buy the character fully and it weakened any scene he was in. And I generally like Landry Jones as an actor, just not this kind of obnoxious attmpted-scene-stealing performance. It reminds me of shit Ryan Gosling used to do (better) back in the day.
As the weekend proceeds, Chris becomes increasingly aware of a sense of wrongness around him. The way Missy aggressively admonishes his smoking habit, only to ambush-hypnotize him late one night, feels like the first sign that the visage is slipping. And Chris struggles to maintain his “everything is cool” demeanor as the Armitages and their parade of rich white fucks give him ever more reason to drop it and leave. Part of the tension of the movie is just how long it takes Chris to wise up, and I think this is part of the point though some might dismiss it as trademark horror movie stupidity and get annoyed. Chris always seems to be struggling just a bit to stay casual and calm. The struggle is not dramatized, and is delivered subtly through Daniel Kaluuya’s incredible performance. Without this at the center of the movie, I think a lot of the complexity Peele is going for would be lost or easily ignored in favor of surface elements.
Also an MVP though!
Kaluuya’s sincerity and quiet expressiveness would be one thing on their own, but Peele can’t stay away from comedy and uses it here to great effect. His main vehicle for this is Lil Rel Howery, playing Chris’s friend Rod. Rod gets to pop in and comment on Chris’s experiences whenever the movie needs to jettison some tension. His over-the-top paranoia about Chris’s situation, right from the get-go, is part of why Chris is able to sustain his own delusion that nothing all that weird is happening. With Rod giving voice to premature and hilarious fears and anxieties, Chris can safely dismiss them and keep up his side of the pretense. I think that’s a brilliant way to show how having a sense of humor about racial tension can be both a gift and a curse, something I imagine Peele is acutely aware of.
In the end, though, Rod is almost 100% right about what’s going on in the Armitage house. Even though it sounds fucking outlandish, even his quickly dismissed notion that it’s magic (magic doesn’t exist!) seems to have some merit. In some ways the layering of the comedy and horror in Get Out echoes The Cabin in the Woods on a mechanical level, and I think that includes having the slightly ridiculous supporting character be ultimately right about everything. Just think about how crazy Get Out goes with the hypnosis/mind control thing… it’s not just hypnosis, but a kind of occult (look again at those pictures on the basement walls) body-jacking enterprise. It’s very much magic.
Stanfield is just… creepy. The movie lingers on him in all his scenes as “Andrew” as if Peele really wants the fascination to settle in.
The thing I kept thinking about with regard to what Get Out is saying about race relations between black folks and white folks is that it comes down to a move from overt hatred and racial phylogeny (though these elements are very present in the movie too) to a deeper kind of ownership, and therefore enslavement, of black human beings. When blind art dealer Hudson (Stephen Root, one of the most well cast actors in the movie) explains to Chris why he has been chosen for the body-switching. He highlights all the myriad reasons that explain Chris’s question “why black people?” and they all represent the facets of the ways white culture co-opts, steals from, colonizes, and ultimately enslaves black culture. Being cool like black people (literally embodied by Stanfield’s character being a jazz musician), being physically powerful like black people, being virile and sexually exotic like black people, and finally having the soul of black people. So it becomes about dismantling and re-purposing blackness, especially black bodies, so that they remain useful and productive for the oldest, whitest assholes on Earth. If Peele wanted to drop his mic at that point, I’d totally understand but he doesn’t even stop there.
What I thought was an incredibly well-placed punch from Peele, taking the above steps further, was this idea of Hudson being blind both literally and figuratively, and coveting Chris’s eyes as well as his “eye”, his perspective of the world as an artist. His soul, really. The black soul, especially the soul of a black artist, is the final thing to take, right? And it’s no accident, as if anything in this movie is, that photography and light and the eyes are so integral to the way the body-jacking is both enacted and disrupted. It seems that Peele is putting forth a thesis that more than wanting to enslave or destroy black folks because they are subhuman, white racists actually covet blackness and wish to possess or embody it themselves. When that clicked, it was the feeling I described about getting it. It’s not that I suddenly “get” racism or understand what it’s like to be black or anything like that. It’s more that I got what Peele was saying, and honestly he’s saying it so well that it’s probably hard not to get it (I hope?). In spite of the joke-like structure of this realization, there is nothing funny about it. It’s so existentially horrifying as an outsider that I can only imagine how angry and sad such a concept must feel to black folks and nonwhite folks who regularly face people demonstrating the kinds of motivations and fucked up psychology that this movie dramatizes.
When everything falls into place, Chris doesn’t flinch from what he has to do.
Though Chris kills the evil Armitages without a lot of hesitation, there’s almost no pageantry or cinematic artifice around it (like in, say, Django Unchained). The catharsis is low on fanfare, and there’s a sense of Chris being resigned rather than vengeful. Because so much of the movie is filled with intention, I wonder about the intention of this. Chris mostly just wants to “get out”, and he does try to take Georgina (Betty Gabriel) with him, but he doesn’t fully rise up in a typical horror movie table-turning. It must have been tempting to make him a temporary action hero, or symbol of black anger at white oppression (like in, say, Django Unchained), but Peele shows restraint here as well and goes fairly low-key (but still very intense) for the escape sequence. Perhaps the main point of this sequence was to show how absolute the damage done to Georgina and Walter was, that they could not be saved and could not save themselves. With these black-looking people acting mostly as part of the danger Chris is in, the consequences (tragic?) of that relationship in the intensity of those last few scenes might have been what Peele wanted the viewer to focus on.
I had a hard time focusing on anything other than Alison Williams, whose performance in this movie is absolutely unnerving. If the Armitages all represent different aspects of the hatreds, prejudices, aggressions, and psychologies that motivate exploitation and oppression of nonwhite people, Rose is probably the scariest. Dean seems to be that careful urbane white supremacist who uses the language of the left to disarm fears while dropping coded dehumanizing ideas into his seemingly casual remarks. Jeremy is seething rage and violent, toxic masculinity turned racial. Missy is control and domination of behavior and impulse, shown through her weirdly over the top attitude about smoking and the way she dominates her own family. Meanwhile, Rose is a total sociopath, switching emotions on and off as need be and becoming a complete blank slate whenever she’s not being Rose. Her chasing Chris out with a loaded rifle was way scarier to me than anything Jeremy said or did. I know Williams from Girls and though Rose resembles Marnie when she’s playing the part, I didn’t know Williams could do the cold lizard-like thing she does here. Just… *shudder*.
On the subject of performances, Betty Gabriel destroys. Wouldn’t be the same movie without her.
There have been some articles written about the way Get Out may be commenting on interracial relationships, specifically that they shouldn’t happen. Some of this stuff seems a little silly given that Peele is himself engaged to a white woman, but I do think there’s a point to be made about those privileged young white women, like the fake Rose we see for most of the movie, who are maybe falsely “woke” and who use both their privilege and their struggles as women to justify a grasping, entitled sense of what it is to have any kind of identity struggle or struggle against oppression. I know young women who are like that, who think any struggle is fair game to speak for and who collect signifiers of their feminism or their intersectionality as merit badges to trot out whenever they want to appropriate someone else’s struggle. I want to point out that I know white men who do this shit too, but typically they lack as strong a sense of confidence in their wokeness because to even pretend to be woke is to acknowledge their own massive privilege, which puts them rungs above even the whitest woman in the world in the hierarchies of privilege. But that’s the libtard cuck snowflake in me speaking, so the fuck do I know?
Whatever I do or don’t know, I have to believe that not all white people are inherently, incurably racist. I have to believe that while some white girls just want to freak out their parents with a black boyfriend, or earn some kind of social consciousness merit badge by same, there are just as many if not more who are aware of their own privilege and can forge a meaningful connection to a black man on a basis of awareness and communication. It’s possible that the odds are against this, though. Especially in America. But all the same, I don’t think that Get Out is a horror movie about interracial relationships. I think it’s a horror movie about the black experience of a certain and pervasive type (or types) of white agression.
Either way, it’s a great fucking horror movie.