Horror movies have a long-standing tradition of tackling social issues in a veiled way. Their relatively lower budgets and genre trappings allow filmmakers to make bold statements in a way that big blockbusters simply can’t or won’t. In addition to creating tension and scaring us, the best examples strive for deeper truths about the human condition. I’m not certain anyone expected Jordan Peele (of TV’s Key & Peele) to write and direct the next great horror movie, but in Get Out he may have done just that.
The leap from comedy to horror isn’t such a stretch – both are highly dependent upon timing and tone. In his eponymous sketch show, Peele (along with Keegan-Michael Key) consistently proved his pop culture obsession through sketches like The Valets (who shouted about their love of movies and “Liam Neesons”) and a wide variety of movie parodies. Key & Peele then was a perfect training ground for feature films, allowing Peele to experiment with cinematic styles and pace before settling on a story he wanted to tell.
In Get Out the social ill is racism and it manifests itself in various ways. Daniel Kaluuya (TV’s Black Mirror) plays Chris Washington, a black man dating a white woman – Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of TV’s Girls). At four months into their relationship Rose is bringing Chris to her parents’ estate for the first time. When Chris asks Rose is she’s mentioned that her boyfriend’s black she brushes it off with a quick joke, stating it’ll be fine. It’s 2017 and the assumption is that we’ve moved beyond Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-type scenarios.
And indeed everything is fine at first, though a panicked deer struck by their car and a tense standoff with a local cop start building unease before Chris and Rose even arrive at her parent’s place. Once there, Chris is welcomed with open arms by Rose’s genial folks Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener). Sure – the Armitages have both a black maid and groundskeeper in an antiquated arrangement that feels dangerously close to pre-Civil War era America and Dean is almost too quick to befriend Chris and ask probing questions – but these middle-aged, middle-class white people are probably just trying to make Chris feel welcome, right?
Peele slyly layers in clues and hints about the Armitage’s true feelings, as a weekend in the country builds an almost unbearable level of dread. Dean’s father was a runner who was beat by Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, a loss he never got over. Missy works as a hypnotherapist, offering to cure Chris of his smoking habit (and teasing out deeper truths in the process). And Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is outright hostile, as the drunken fratboy tries out UFC moves on Chris at the dinner table.
All of that pales in comparison to the grand garden party the Armitages throw, during which their even more clueless friends make insensitive comments towards Chris as they size him up with hungry eyes. One elderly woman squeezes his bicep and lasciviously asks Rose if it’s “true what they say” about being with a black man. Even in the breezy countryside the atmosphere proves crushing and airless for Chris, and by the time he has a stilted and jarring conversation with Logan (Atlanta’s LaKeith Stanfield), Chris has had enough.
The script (also by Peele) does a remarkable job of slowly shifting passive aggression to outright aggression as the movie goes along. Dean and Missy, by all outward appearances, should be allies to Chris. The couple are educated, open-minded, and seemingly good people. Yet nefarious motives lurk beneath the surface, as Get Out transmogrifies racism into a genuinely surprising and chilling horror framework that results in a twisty third act that pays off the breadcrumbs that have been carefully laid out. The genius of the film is that every line of dialogue, every sidelong glance, has meaning and import and it draws to a masterful conclusion that’s both unexpected but inevitable in hindsight.
Mining racial tension for horror could be exploitative but Peele proves remarkably adept in balancing tone in his directorial debut. Even more than Key & Peele’s earlier, goofier film Keanu, Get Out feels like a personal story that’s also incredibly timely. There are welcome flashes of comedy due mostly to Chris’ best friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery), a conspiratorially minded TSA agent with delusions of grandeur. But make no mistake, Get Out is a straight up horror movie that hews closely to tradition in terms of structure and effectiveness, but breaks thrilling new ground with its potent subject matter. It deserves another re-watch and some time to settle in, but right now this is a movie that’s uncomfortably fraught with real-world issues in a way that feels potent and prescient. Just like in zombie movies where the real monsters are other people, the true horror in Get Out is problems that have existed long before the movie was made and continue to unfortunately persist today.
Get Out (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Runtime: 103 minutes