With horrors both real and metaphorical, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from hell.
The best horror movies have always been politically and socially relevant. Think about the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other Cold War-era films about subtle extra-terrestrial incursion: the invading force looks like us, and they sound like us enough to infiltrate our ranks, but they aren’t like us. They don’t share our values and they’re sneakily trying to destroy our way of life. Substitute “communist spies” for “aliens” and the metaphor is revealed. The Stepford Wives is a commentary about feminism and white flight to the suburbs. Hell, even Paranormal Activity has something to say about the authority of media in the age of digital manipulation. So what does the horror genre have to say about our modern moment of political strife and renewed racial tension? Enter Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out.
There’s not a lot for me to say about Get Out’s themes that you haven’t already heard. The film tells the story of Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya, Black Mirror), an African-American man making his first trip to meet his white girlfriend’s parents at their country estate outside the city. He’s nervous that Rose’s (Allison Williams) family won’t be comfortable with her daughter dating a black man, even as she tries to allay his fears. Her father would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if he could, the constantly repeated joke goes.
But Chris quickly senses that something is slightly off about the Armitage family estate, from the way a police officer unnecessarily asks for his papers when Rose hits a deer near the property, to the dead-eyed, disturbing politeness of the Armitage family’s all-black servants. None of this escapes Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), who tries to assuage Chris’s uncertainty with stories about his own love of black culture. The servants Rose and Georgina are holdovers who used to care for his elderly mother and father, and he just couldn’t bear to leave them unemployed once his parents passed on. Oh, and did you know that he’d have voted Barack Obama for a third term?
Peele’s film is keen to investigate how white people use moral licensing as a defense against racism. Like the person who denies racism because they “have black friends” while concurrently endorsing policies that keep black people disenfranchised and impoverished, Dean’s Obama defense belies the language he uses elsewhere in the film. He warns Chris away from the basement due to a mold problem. Black mold, of course. His son talks about how good Chris would be at MMA due to his “natural athleticism” and genetic makeup.
Most disturbing is Dean’s brief monologue about the area’s deer problem. He paints a picture of deer as a menace, disgusting animals that breed like rats and are taking over, destroying property value in their wake. Any dead deer is a good deer, and he smiles when he sees one dead on the road because “that’s a start.” It’s a speech right out of 1940s America. Simply change “deer” to the n-word and you have a racist argument for neighborhood segregation. It’s among the first signs that Chris and Rose’s trip is a modern day Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from hell.
The film isn’t oppressively scary, confining most of its horror to a few jump scares, overt creepiness, and metaphorical musings. As someone who doesn’t see a lot of horror movies, I finished the film around midnight and went to bed without giving a second thought about what was hiding under my bed. Sometimes classification is just a marketing gimmick, and that’s the case with Get Out. There are certainly horror elements to the film, but the television spots have overstated their place in the picture. The film would be better classified as a creepy, sociologically-charged thriller, but that doesn’t sell as well in the post-Oscar movie dead zone that rolls around every February, where ghosts, aliens, and chainsaw-wielding psychopaths dominate.
Speaking of the marketing, it’s surprising given the ads (but not by Jordan Peele’s standards) how funny Get Out is. Lil Rel Howery gives a scene-stealing performance as Chris’s friend Rod, a TSA who emphatically warns Chris about white people who just want to lure him to the country and make him a sex slave every time the two exchange phone calls. The brief comic interludes break up the tension, allowing for a moment of relief before plunging back into the mystery. They work the same way as the sound design on films like The Lord of the Rings where the engineers always cut the sound right before an arrow struck its target: a brief moment of silence to heighten the eventual punch.
Chris is introduced to the rest of the neighborhood at a party, and his unease only increases when he encounters another dead-eyed, smiling African-American man among the crowd of cultured elites who are busy fawning over Tiger Woods in front of Chris. The man presents himself as Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), the boyfriend of one of the party attendees (“Sex slave!” Rod shouts), but when Chris takes a picture of him to send to Rod, the camera’s flash seemingly breaks Logan’s dead-eyed veneer, and he screams for Chris to get out as soon as possible before he can be re-sedated by Rose’s hypno-therapist mother (Catherine Keener).
I’m curious about Jordan Peele’s influences in writing the film. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Stepford Wives, and a good dose of David Lynch are obvious, but there’s real-world inspiration lurking as well. The opening scene in which Stanfield is abducted while walking through a white neighborhood carries shades of the Trayvon Martin shooting. Peele himself, is married to the white comedian Chelsea Peretti, and while I doubt he encountered the same horrors as his character, it’s obvious that the writer/director understands the universal unease in any black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents. He and the cast are certainly effective in translating that feeling to the audience. Daniel Kaluuya pulls off an excellent leading performance, thankfully never becoming the clichéd horror lead who baffles in their refusal to leave an obviously dangerous situation. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are both great in putting an edge on their welcoming parental performances. Lakeith Stanfield is nigh unrecognizable here, his role a complete separation from his hilariously drug-addled, breakout performance on Atlanta. Allison Williams is…well, Allison Williams. I guess they can’t all be great.
Get Out proves Jordan Peele to be a gifted director and writer among his other many talents. We’ve always known that the Key & Peele comedian had inspired takes on racial issues, but I’m shocked at how effectively he’s managed them into an excellent horror film. There are a lot of great idea men who can’t make that jump. Peele knows just how to amp up his audience and then deflate them for maximum effect, and the film always has something interesting to say about race in-between it’s scares. We may soon find ourselves thinking about Jordan Peele the director first, and Jordan Peele the comedian second. He’s got that kind of skill. February is a well-known dumping ground for scary movies, but Get Out is a breath of fresh air to the genre.
Get Out is a standout.