The surprise midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival this year wasn’t much of a surprise by the time it began rolling, but I think it shocked more that a few attendees at just how strong, topical and occasionally shocking it was. First-time writer-director Jordan Peele (half of the great comedy team Key & Peele, who made Keanu last year) has been talking for a couple of years about his horror-comedy script for a project called Get Out. But when the details of the plot begin to reveal themselves, I’m not quite sure anyone will be prepared for how he dives headfirst into the deep waters of racism in America, told through a story that makes it quite clear that, while racism might seem more at bay than ever before (I’m talking about the pre-President Trump era in which the film was conceived and made), the real fear amongst African-Americans is that white people are just better at hiding it these days.
Get Out begins harmlessly enough. A young, interracial couple—Chris (Daniel Kaluuya of Sicario) and Rose (Allison Williams from “Girls”)—decide to head to her parents’ palatial estate where Chris can finally meet the folks for the first time. I don’t recall if it is ever said which state the action takes place in, but the film itself was shot in Alabama and subtly evokes an aura of Southern Gothic.
Chris, the boyfriend, is concerned about what the parents think of him, in particular, the fact that he’s a black man (apparently he’s Rose’s first black boyfriend). But parents Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) seem positively darling, almost trying too hard to make Chris feel at home. (“I would have voted for Obama for a third time,” says Dean.)
It doesn’t take long for Chris (and the audience) to feel like something is amiss, especially when he meets the household staff, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who are overly smiley and surface-level nice, while seeming suspicious and not eager to engage in chit-chat with Chris. Peele is a smart enough filmmaker to drop subtle hints about what’s really going on in the house and community; even still, he never gives away too much.
At the top of the film, we see a young black musician (played by Keith Stanfield of Straight Outta Compton, “Atlanta,” Short Term 12, Snowden) lost in the streets of this same affluent town. He’s plucked off the road by a passing car, and when we see him again, at an annual party thrown by Rose’s parents. This time though, he’s the date of a middle-aged woman, dressed like a codger at a pricey nursing home. But something happens that seems to snap him to his senses, and he immediately begins to scream at Chris to run before he’s whisked away by others at the party and taken into a room with Missy, who just happens to by a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnotherapy. She even conducts a seemingly harmless experiment on Chris that results in him quitting smoking.
It seems unlikely that Jordan Peele would ever make something that didn’t have a great deal of subtext, and Get Out is loaded with it—much of it not even sub-. The way the guests (all white) greet and speak to Chris is polite to the point of overreaching, attempting to appear friendly and even flirty, staring at him out of the corners of their eyes like a prize farm animal. More than being awkward for Chris, a gradual sense of being demeaned creeps in, especially from Rose’s troubled brother (Caleb Landry Jones), a broadly drawn character the film could have easily lived without, mostly because Jones overplays the part to such a degree that it breaks the mood of this perfectly toned movie.
One very necessary supporting character is that of Chris’s best friend Rod, a TSA agent (Lil Rel Howery, a Chicago-based comedian) who fancies himself an amateur detective and whose presence gives this tense film a chance to periodically breathe. When Chris and Rose don’t return home when scheduled, Rod begins the process of finding them using local authorities or his own intuition.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, but the entire third act is certifiably nuts and occasionally grotesque. Every actor meant to be duplicitous here does a terrific job finding both good and awful qualities in their characters, especially Whitford and Keener. And Kaluuya is tremendous as a man placed in a situation where his inclination is to be polite and suppress his paranoia. He’s brave when he has no other choice and terrified when he has a moment to think about how deep and unspeakable certain realities are.
Peele also finds a few moments to make things genuinely tense and scary. Some of the jumps are cheap and obvious, but for the most part, the filmmaker wants the fear experience to be genuine and heartfelt. Nothing is more critical in a horror film’s success than getting the audience to care about the characters in danger. Then toss in veiled statements about cultural appropriation and how “cool” being black is (this is the old white people saying that, mind you), and you have a thought-provoking and entertaining offering.
This is a tough film to review without giving away certain elements, so I’ll leave you with this: Get Out is so damn smart, funny, and impressively directed by Peele, who embraces certain great horror tropes, but never forgetting that the best horror and sci-fi often includes clandestine messages and commentary on modern society. And the idea of using the monster of racism as the true villain here is handled beautifully. The filmmaker brings us into Chris’s life is by giving us a bit of his troubled and painful past regarding his parents, some of which are brought out of the dark recesses of his memories with a little hypnotic kick from Missy.
Peele doesn’t spare us a bit of the old gore, but he manages to find a few gross-out tricks in Get Out that surprised even me. But his main goal as a director of horror seems to be to provide a sustained sense of dread, punctuated by a handful of genuinely terrifying moments. It’s an impressive debut that has me eager to see what Peele has to offer next, both within and outside his comedy-team setting.