There is a long history in horror movies of incorporating social commentary into the thrills and chills of the plot. The genre has had a renaissance in the last four or five years, both in terms of quality and box-office success. Movies like Don’t Breathe and It Follows caught on with critics and audiences alike, a difficult feat. Comedian Jordan Peele – best known as one-half of the sketch comedy show Key & Peele – wrote and directed Get Out, a horror movie that takes racism as its central plot element. Get Out is a complex and thought-provoking picture, sure to start some awkward, important conversations. Peele has proven himself an immensely talented writer and director. He made a horror movie that is genuinely creepy, while also providing pointed observations on what being black in a white world is like.
The movie starts with photographer Chris Washington packing for a big trip. He’s preparing for the meeting-the-significant-other’s-parents ritual, a nerve-wracking experience for anyone in a new relationship. There’s an added element of unease for Chris, though. He’s black, and his girlfriend, Rose, is white. Before they leave the city for the sprawling suburbs where Rose’s affluent parents live, Chris asks her if they know he’s black. Rose tells Chris she hasn’t mentioned it. She thinks there’s no need. Her parents aren’t racist, she tells him. In fact, her father will probably go out of his way to mention he would gladly have voted for Obama a third time if he could have.
Peele has a real knack for crafting an unsettling vibe in Get Out. It all starts when Rose accidentally hits a deer with her car on their way to her parent’s house. The dying animal mewls on the side of the road as Chris and Rose get out to inspect the damage. It sets the tone nicely for the rest of the movie. From the moment Chris meets the parents, Dean and Missy, something just seems a little off about them. The alarm bells really go off when Rose’s brother, Jeremy, shows up. He talks to Chris about sports, and comments that with Chris’ “genetic makeup,” he is probably great at just about any sport he tries. It’s the kind of racism that’s disguised as a compliment, and both Rose and her parents try to ignore it as Chris becomes understandably upset.
This off-ness is really the key to the social commentary at the root of Get Out. Dean is a little too anxious to prove he’s cool with black people. As he’s leading Chris on the tour of the house, he does make that inevitable comment about wishing he could have voted for Obama a third time. He even adds an aside about how Obama was the best president of his lifetime.
These moments are clever, and Peele expertly, almost imperceptibly, shifts the dynamic from mere awkwardness to outright offensiveness. A great example of Peele’s expertise with this takes place during a house party at Dean and Missy’s. It’s an event the couple throw every year, and the comments the guests make to Chris are unbelievable. One guest tells Chris that black skin is increasingly becoming more hip than white skin. Another guest squeezes Chris’ arm, and marvels at how muscular and strong he is.
The fact that the people making the remarks apparently find them totally innocuous makes what they are saying all the more disturbing. It’s a clever commentary on how white people, especially those who think of themselves as racially progressive, interact with black people. It also hints at the fact that these people might have more nefarious motives. Chris begins to suspect this when he interacts with the lone black man at the party who isn’t a servant. The man, Logan, acts like a Stepford Wife, and Chris tries to surreptitiously take a picture of him. The flash on his phone accidentally goes off, causing Logan to freak out and scream “Get out,” at Chris.
The film’s sinister tone is complemented by a few moments of inventive visual effects. Missy is a hypnotherapist and she claims to want to help Chris break his smoking habit, if for no other reason than she doesn’t want her daughter’s boyfriend to indulge in such a disgusting habit. During a late-night talk, she hypnotizes Chris. When he is in a suggestible state, Missy tells him to go to the “sunken place,” a kind of space-like void where Chris floats as if suspended in water. The most arresting aspect of these sequences is Chris’ view of the world while he’s in the sunken place. He sees everything as if on a TV or movie screen that slowly moves further and further away from him. Peele uses these moments to heighten the fear and dread that Chris feels being in a strange place, surrounded by people he’s not sure he can trust.
At one point during the movie, Chris asks the housekeeper, Georgina, if she doesn’t feel uncomfortable when she is surrounded by white people, because sometimes he does. She insists not, but the tears that slowly start streaming down her face say otherwise. Chris’ admission speaks to how anyone might feel being surrounded by a culture that is hostile towards them, and it’s a perspective that many white audience members may never have considered.
I’m having to weave around a lot of plot developments in Get Out because I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it. The last act brings the disconcerting feeling that permeates the whole movie to a boiling point, and there are a few twists that I wasn’t at all expecting. The climax marries the outlandish horror element of the movie with a real-life situation that has become very familiar to anyone paying attention to race relations in America. As Chris attempts to escape the horrors that lie hidden in the idyllic suburb, a police car pulls up on him. He raises his hands slowly, evoking the “hands up, don’t shoot” slogan tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. The anticipation, and dread, of what might happen to our hero, Chris, when the police car door opens is genuinely disturbing. Jordan Peele’s blending of horror movie aesthetic with social satire and commentary are what makes Get Out such a success.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Get Out is one of the best examples of horror-with-social-commentary I've ever seen. It has important things to say, and at the same time, it's genuinely creepy.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I got so wrapped up in talking about the themes and plot of Get Out that I didn't mention the excellent cast. As Chris, British actor Daniel Kaluuya does an impeccable American accent, and handles a full range of emotions beautifully. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener give nuanced turns as Rose's parents. Lil Rel Howery is hilarious. He adds Get Out's few moments of genuine laughter and levity as Chris' friend, Rod, a TSA agent who becomes worried about his friend.
- Full disclosure: I'm painfully, glowingly white. I'm sure I didn't write about Get Out in a way that's at all perceptive about the black experience because, after all, I have no frame of reference. I hope I did write about it in a thoughtful, respectful way that honors the achievement that Get Out is. I want to take this opportunity to highlight what a person of color has to say about this movie, since those views are more important than mine on a topic like this. Read this excellent piece by Tari Ngangura.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Next week I'll be looking at T2. No, I'm not taking a trip in the wayback machine to review the second Terminator film, I'm reviewing the sequel to Danny Boyle's breakout 1996 hit, Trainspotting. It's called T2 Trainspotting. It's a rather silly, clumsy title. Come back next week to find out if I feel the same way about the movie.