Those familiar with the work of Jordan Peele (of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele) may not be too surprised by the effectiveness of his horror debut Get Out. His television series juggled laughs with socially conscious material and cinematic flair, no different than how effective horror films mask their deeper and relevant social themes with scares and style. Dubbed by Peele as a social thriller, this latest Blumhouse Production mines plenty of familiar ideas and areas for creepiness, uncomfortable scenarios, frights and comedy. As a result, Get Out works as a simply-structured horror film as well as a pointed social commentary on race.
From a conceptual level it is interesting to see how filmmakers work with horror stories such as this. Just recently I had to delve into A Cure for Wellness, a film using a mystery as its backbone, despite leaving the audience waiting for an inevitable reveal. Get Out operates on a similar wavelength, as the opening scene clearly establishes the film as a horror flick, yet we still take our time to become comfortable with the characters and the setup, before any sort of payoff occurs.
Actually, saying “comfortable” is a bit of a misnomer, because the brilliance of Get Out comes from how purposefully uncomfortable we are supposed to be, while in the shoes of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya). He plays a photographer in a relationship with Rose (Allison Williams), who is about to meet the parents Missy and Dean (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) for the first time. Early on Chris makes it clear that he has concern for whether or not the parents already know he is black. What seems silly to Rose, becomes a true test for the cautious Chris, who deals with an isolated country estate full of people going out of their way to boast of their tolerance and even envy of him and people like him.
Given how this is a horror film, there must surely be something sinister afoot, but Peele’s script deftly delivers plenty of tension in the film’s staging. A chance encounter with a deer in the road shows the audience that sudden jumps are not off-limits and the presence via phone of Chris’ best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) also ensures how laughs will help balance out the jolts. However, Peele relishes the opportunity to make this much more than an awkward meeting between boyfriend and parents. It wants to make a point of digging into every day transgressions that help build the tension that has already begun to boil.
This is why the film shines as more than just a simple horror flick, despite the easy setup. Before any possibly heinous action takes place, the audience is put in the shoes of a man who deals with everyday racial biases, as well as cheerfully progressive white folks who overcompensate on warmth towards Chris in ways that feel patronizing. Peele took inspiration from films such as The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby, which shows. You get a constant sense of unease that plays more of a role in the film’s overall design than the actual plot.
Not hurting is the superb casting. Kaluuya works very well as a lead required to smile his way through many situations, while also playing up a growing sense of paranoia. Whitford uses the energy that typifies many of his performances to a degree that fits right into the mood of this film. Keener’s casting is a bit of a knowing choice that becomes clearer once you see this film and look at one of her other signature roles, but she also gets to be a part of the film’s most deceptively sinister sequence. A major shout out goes to Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson, who dial up the creepiness to eleven in their roles as two employees of the estate. The same can be said for LaKeith Stanfield, who could almost have his scenes edited into a terrifying short film.
Get Out arrives in such a tight and well-constructed package that it’s almost a shame there isn’t a messier, but even more ambitious film coming out of this. A few ideas could have easily been fleshed out further to show this as an angrier film. Giving away the horror angle so early alleviates much of the mystery from the get go, even if the truth of the matter is more than a little unpredictably twisted. As a debut film, Get Out shows Peele is plenty familiar with setup, timing and payoff in a way that is every bit as important to a comedian. Because of this efficiency, that may leave this film almost too neat, but it certainly satisfies without cheating the audience.
The added bonus, of course, is getting a crowd-pleasing horror film that ties into the current climate (to say nothing about our continual history) from a filmmaker easily familiar with his own screenplay on a personal level. Given the current praise for similarly themed documentaries 13th and I Am Not Your Negro, it doesn’t hurt to see a film just as significant, with the potential to reach an even wider audience. Get Out is that film and it is a clever, funny and scary little effort worth checking out.