Director: Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, LilRel Howery
A little over two years ago I read a very interesting article on the greatly missed beacon of film analysis The Dissolve about the sparseness of diversity in the horror genre. Matt Barone’s piece, which still exists here, articulated an issue I had long felt true about this area of filmmaking. Jordan Peele looks set to be one of the voices to seriously start answering that question, as his Blumhouse produced feature debut Get Out tackles the divides of race in American culture head-on and features one of horror cinema’s best black protagonists in recent memory (if at all).
It’s a long-held truism that comedians are often predisposed to handling dramatic subject matter with greater success than the reverse. Peele, best known for comedic work, strengthens that rule of thumb here. He clearly comes at the material well-versed in horror but the perspective and the voice he brings is wholeheartedly refreshing. Get Out is a film that at once acknowledges genre traditions and is also happy to warp them. And its colossal success already (over $100 million and counting on home turf) exemplifies that the audience and appetite for such diversity is there, ready, waiting and eager in an arena too often conspicuous for its whiter-than-white ensembles.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are a couple. He’s black, she’s white. No big deal. Except Rose is about to take Chris home to meet the parents. They’ve been dating for four or five months (five months) and things have been going pretty well. But the short trip from the city to the country is steeped in paranoia for Chris, the connotations of decades of strained race relations and stories of regressive country attitudes hanging heavy over the couple despite Roses’ reassurances and the loving status quo between them.
Arriving in her leafy home town and after a jumpy altercation with a deer on the road – a classic horror always needs a decent jolt of foreshadowing – Chris and Rose arrive at the veritable mansion Rose calls home. Her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), give the eager appearance of happy liberals. They are welcoming of Chris. Yet Chris’ guard – and by extension ours -is never allowed to fall. Something is off about this friendly weekend gathering. Not least whenever we’re treated to time with the family’s black housekeepers, whose gentile manner rings as false, too blank or too cheery. A sense of performance surrounds Chris, of masquerade; that there’s a hidden truth that could cause him real danger.
It is the suspense of this and the playing of paranoia that really impresses in Peele’s film. The first hour is really a masterclass of intelligently played high-wire work as we’re shown enough to know something is the matter (not least from that seemingly unrelated cold open) but we’re tantalisingly left short all of the pieces. It’s a great example of audience baiting, one that’s self-aware without being smug about it, playful without ever dropping the sinister undertone.
Peele uses this time to bed in Chris’ experience of strained race relations, underlining that the seemingly over-earnest, well-intentioned or good-natured can themselves provoke a sense of divisiveness. Those eager to show that they’re ‘cool’ with Chris are just as liable to announce or create a perceived societal gulf as those who are openly suspicious of him.This kind of minority empathy is bizarrely rare in cinema, and Get Out is really at it’s best when it pries into these situations which play out in the everyday world, well, every day. The film takes on the air of a comedy of manners, albeit one in which (almost) nobody is laughing.
I’m loathe to discuss where it is Peele takes us here. Horror’s always most effective when you don’t know exactly what it is hiding behind the door. There are nods to other films along the way, indirect or not. Missy specialises in hypnosis, and her particular technique is visualised with great effectiveness in a number of sequences that feel like conscious references to Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. Meanwhile the look of the film, and a number of the autumnal suburban shots, recall the photography of Gregory Crewdson that so inspired David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. A late prop conjures memories of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Less flatteringly, some of the more (undeniably) sinister moments that ask us to distrust certain characters carry the blunt-force looniness of the Purge series. Get Out shares a similar “what if” tone that places it in a pleasingly Twilight Zone-esque arena, but the archness of some of these moments can be their undoing. And though it commendably avoids them in the main, one jump scare feels especially cheap.
Actual comedic relief breaks the tension – and on more than one occasion even accentuates it – via Chris’ inquisitive friend Rod (LilRel Howery; putting in the kind of neglected work that supporting actor awards should be made for), who takes on more screen time as events in the country come to a head. He is laced into the story as Get Out‘s very own Dick Hallorann, if Dick Hallorann had been intended to have us chuckling in the aisles. Peele even uses Rod’s comedic largess to throwaway an obvious plot hole (although in doing so, he rather draws attention to it). As enjoyable as Get Out is – and it is involving from start to finish and excruciating for about half that (in the best possibly way) – it also leaves a couple of story points flapping in the breeze. Nevertheless, if it’s a tall tale from a fresh perspective you’re after, this is absolutely the place to be.
Peele has revealed he has several more genre yarns waiting up his sleeve for us. And if the aforementioned box office signifies anything we’ll be seeing his next offering before too long. Good. The need for discussion and interplay has rarely felt so pressing. Get Out discusses exploitation as it discusses slavery as it discusses co-opting race, smothering it, whitewashing it. This is an impressive debut; slick, playful, imaginative and easily one of the best in the Blumhouse box. Recommended.