Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, LilRel Howery
You have to go back to The Blair Witch Project to find a horror film that has caused as much of a critical stir as Get Out. The debut feature from writer-director Jordan Peele, best known as one half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, has become the surprise hit of the year, having already grossed $215 million worldwide off a budget of only $4.5 million, and has been almost universally praised as one of the year’s sharpest movies.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) have been dating for five months. The time has come for Rose to take Chris upstate to meet her parents, but the prospect has him wary. You see, Chris is black, and Rose, who is white, hasn’t thought to mention this to her family. Even though it has been fifty years since Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Rose assures him that both her parents voted for Obama, Chris still thinks it could be an awkward surprise. Arriving at the picturesque country manor, Chris is welcomed with open arms by Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), and while on the surface everything seems to be going fine, something is a little off. Rose and Chris are surprised to find that their visit has coincided with an annual party Dean and Missy throw for their old family friends, and when they start arriving, things only get stranger.
The brilliance of Get Out, and the reason it has caused such a stir, is that it functions on two levels: as both a top shelf piece of horror filmmaking, and as a sharp, zeitgeisty piece of social commentary.
As a comedian, Peele understands the principles of tension and release, principles that are consistent across both comedy and horror. As such he proves to be a really effective horror storyteller, using the genre’s tropes masterfully and unsettling the audience while carefully controlling the tone. He can’t help but bring some comedy to the film, particularly in the form of Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), but the comedy never undermines the tension of the rest of the story. Despite being a very funny movie, it never steps over into the horror-comedy territory of movies like Shaun of the Dead.
Genre filmmaking is often derided as being basic, disposable, and generally less important than serious drama. However, Get Out reminds us that when done well genre filmmaking takes on the roll of modern myth-making: using familiar story forms to help us negotiate contemporary issues. Get Out is about race. However, it is not didactic. While it’s theme is clear, it is not a film that prosecutes a particular argument, posing questions and offering answers. Instead, it taps into the zeitgeist and uses that theme to inform everything on a tonal level. Were this story told with a white protagonist it becomes something different entirely because Peele filters everything through the lens of being black in a white world.
The effectiveness of the theme, and of Peele as a screen storyteller, is on clear display from the very opening scene in which we see a young black man walking through an affluent suburb at night. He is on his phone trying to find an address where he is supposed to be meeting someone. Without anything being said we instantly unsettled. We understand that he is out of place, and he feels to us every bit as vulnerable as if he were a young woman walking through a dark alley. It is a strikingly effective opening sequence, inverting some familiar screen scenarios and preparing us for the story to come. Get Out has obviously been a hit with black audiences, but cinema is an empathy machine and it is the effectiveness with which Peele has drawn such strong empathy from a white audience that is reflected in much of the critical excitement surrounding this movie.
The cast is strong from top to bottom, but relative unknown Daniel Kaluuya is a standout in the lead. Chris is a photographer, we are told he has a great eye, and the beauty of Kaluuya’s understated performance is that so much of it is about him watching. We watch him as he quietly observes and notices, taking in the things going on around him. In a way this film is also about the paranoia which comes from hyperawareness. Having established that he is concerned his race may become an issue over the weekend, we, like him, view every interaction as being potentially coloured by race. So Kaluuya’s subtle reactions, knowing glances, and raised eyebrows become affirmations to an audience thinking ‘yeah, we saw/heard/thought that too.’ It is a remarkable performance.
Even to a non-horror fan like myself, Get Out is something quite special. It is sharp, insightful, creepy, funny, and entertaining as hell.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Get Out? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.