One of Get Out’s key scenes occurs within its first twenty minutes, as protagonists Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) get ready for bed after a day of awkward greetings. Chris, a young black man, has just met Rose’s white parents, the Armitages, Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), for the first time, and endured Dean’s clumsy attempts at post-racial posturing: He asks his daughter and her beau how long their “thang” has been going on for, he addresses Chris as “my man,” and he claims that he would have voted for Obama for a third time if he could have. For Chris, Dean’s faux-enlightened displays are run of the mill. For Rose, they’re an embarrassing affront to decency.
At night she brushes her teeth and offers apologies for her family, shocked at her dad’s lame dork schtick and disgusted by her douchebag brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who talks about Chris’ “genetic makeup” over dinner. But Chris is unfazed. This is what he expected, and what he’s inured to in his interactions with white people. What’s more troubling to him are his encounters with Missy and Dean’s hired help, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), who react to Chris’ presence with what’s best described as robotic surprise. They’re more bewildered by his arrival than he is by his hosts’ casual racism. In turn, he starts to sense that there’s something weird going on, and that’s before Get Out’s real weirdness spills out from the margins, where director Jordan Peele stores it for most of the film’s running time.
Peele’s partner in socially minded comedy, Keegan-Michael Key, is the breakout actor from their retired sketch comedy series, Key and Peele, but Get Out has positioned Peele as the breakout storyteller. This would be a great film coming from a seasoned filmmaker. Coming from Peele, sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, it’s illuminating. His star isn’t born here, but reborn. Not that a guy with Peele’s cultural cachet is likely desperate for work, of course, but if he’s wondering where to take his career post-Key and Peele, well, he should wonder no longer and just focus on leveraging that cachet to direct more movies. It’s a given that Get Out happens to be smart and keeps its tongue glued to its cheek. It’s more a wonder that it’s so well made to boot, a polished effort threaded together with impressive, varied degrees of craft (particularly close-ups, here used to make our skin crawl right off our flesh).
Peele’s a natural behind the camera, but Get Out benefits most from its deceptively trim premise whose simplicity belies rich thematic depth. Chris and Rose go to spend a weekend with her folks in their lavish upstate New York mansion, where they’re throwing the annual Armitage bash with all their friends in attendance. Chris immediately feels out of place; events escalate from there, taking the narrative in a ghastly direction that ultimately ties back to the unsettling sensation of being the “other” in a room full of people who aren’t like you and never let you forget it. Put indelicately, Get Out is about being black and surrounded by whites who squeeze your biceps without asking, who fetishize you to your face, who analyze your blackness as if it’s a fashion trend.
At best Chris’ ordeal is initially bizarre and dizzying, the kind of thing he might bitterly chuckle about in retrospect. At worst it’s a setup for such macabre developments as are found in the domain of horror. That’s a line Peele and Get Out walk without stumbling. The film doles out scariness in intervals, treating fright as a supplement to the inexplicable or the downright creepy. It’s an exercise in tension, where we can presume what’s happening in the Armitage household without necessarily being on the money, and that’s the fun of the film: It spaces its revelations carefully, building on each to undercut any hint of a twist, while still catching us off our guard. When we’re exposed to the whole truth of Get Out’s race dynamic, it feels like a gut punch instead of a bombshell.
Is that part of Peele’s intention? Perhaps, at least as it concerns white theatergoers, who will probably feel discomfited by the film’s unflattering perspective on its white characters. They range from well-meaning but ignorant, to eerie, and each is fixated upon Chris’ skin color with grotesque intensity, though giving more description than that would give too much away. But when Get Out isn’t giving us goosebumps it’s making us bust a gut. The film is nearly unreasonably funny considering its subject matter, motifs, and modern relevance, but with Peele as the author, and with comedian Lil Rel Howery cast as Chris’ best friend, how could it not be? Kaluuya’s subdued replies to the inappropriate advances of the Armitage’s friends invite tittering: The film is told through him, and the higher his eyebrows are raised, the more that we laugh at his circumstances.
We’re laughing with him, but out of need for reassurance, in part because Get Out is heading somewhere ugly and we know it, and also because we’re either guilty of or have been witness to the type of nonchalant bigotry captured in Peele’s script. Treating the film as comedy before horror is a mistake, and not only because of its genre influences. (The Stepford Wives is the obvious reference point, but it might also remind you of, say, The People Under the Stairs.) The comedy is there because it’s in Peele’s DNA to make sport of a matter as grave as racism, but his greater purpose appears to be twofold: To expose white audiences to black American fears in 2017, and to give black audiences cathartic release for said fears.
Get Out isn’t a sensitive movie, but it is compassionate, a chiller spun from human experience. Most of all, it’s great. Maybe we won’t be able to vote for Obama in 2020, but we can definitely beg Peele to make another movie before then.
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson, Keith Stanfield
Release Date: February 24, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.