The discussions that will surround “Get Out” are all-but inevitable. They will concern race in America– specifically the black, male experience in a society that both covets and loathes them equally. These will be about the complicated circumstances of interracial relationships and the unfortunate ‘othering’ of African-Americans– their existential dread and fear scarcely abating since the Jim Crow era.
How sadly droll that it takes a horror vehicle penned by a comedian to inspire audiences to join the noble pursuit of racial equality. It is a low bar to spend 15 dollars and two hours of one’s time to feel affronted, rather than be appalled by daily inequalities depicted on the nightly news. What will be undoubtedly lost in this larger conversation is that “Get Out” is a whip-smart film with deft pacing and a classic sensibility that is a rare item indeed.
“Get Out” leaps from the mind of Jordan Peele, half of the eponymous Key & Peele comedy duo. This move is not entirely unprecedented, as the Emmy award winning Key & Peele show has steadily produced smart, incisive, content exploring race at its most absurd since 2012. What is unprecedented, however, is Peele’s efficacy as a genre filmmaker. It is as if Peele has suddenly grown bored with being a pianist, switching effortlessly to the violin, playing a full concerto on the first outing with only the most minor of difficulties.
“Do they know I’m black?” the heavy lidded Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) asks his new girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Alison Williams). “Should they?” she retorts, smiling beatifically.
The pair embarks on a weekend excursion that will mark the least cherished moment for any new relationship– meeting the parents. A pall is cast over this entire affair, as an opening vignette depicts the brutal assualt and kidnapping of a young black man from the ominous confines of suburbia. The relationship between Chris and Rose is light and effortless, but Peele offers a sense of perpetual simmering tension. Employing a metaphor that is rapidly becoming rote (See: “The Invitation”) a deer leaps from the treeline and collides with their car as they journey to Rose’s family home. Chris looms over the bleating, dying animal, his eyes darkly reflected in its own. The foreshadowed analogy is perfectly clear.
The bulk of the film occurs at the Armitage estate, with Chris gently navigating one racially charged scenario after another. Dean (Bradley Whitford), Rose’s father, claps Chris on the back, casually referring to him as “My man,” and notes that he would have voted for Obama a third time if given the chance. The Armitage family is doted on by a pair of black servants, whose tranquilized expressions and stilted utterances offer a sense that something is amiss. That Peele’s scenario has the terrible optics of inequality is smartly observed at the script-level.
“I know, white family, black servants… total cliche,” Dean abashedly remarks to Chris. This balancing act of addressing the audience’s expectations with that of the characters’ is maintained throughout. The doling of narrative breadcrumbs keeps the protagonist and audience in an effective, suspenseful lock-step. Far too often in horror films this equation becomes inversely proportionate– audiences inuit danger far in advance of a character’s reckoning, leaving their actions to appear foolish and consequences, deserved. When the horrifying nature of the scenario inevitably dawns on Chris, the moment is earned for both parties.
Peele’s film iterates on the suspenseful propensities of Hitchcock, eschewing the bad-habits of contemporary horror filmmakers. There is nary a boo-scare or unnecessarily loud soundtrack sting to be had. Georgina, the blank-faced maid, stares out of a window at night while the perplexed protagonist looks on with deep uncertainty. A simple conversation between Chris and Missy, the Armitage matriarch, becomes wildly tense with the scraping of a spoon along the surface of a teacup. The score by first time composer, Michael Abels evokes the ever-present, undulating tension of Hitchcock’s long time collaborator, Bernard Herrmann.
The pacing is languid, allowing dread to accumulate by dribs and drabs, withholding all catharsis for a grand finale. And yet, it is in these final moments where Peele errs slightly, allowing the narrative to step beyond a smart premise into the absurd. Medical operating theaters are adorned with lit candles, as even sociopaths enjoy ambiance. A preposterous knick-knack becomes a weapon used with deadly efficiency. The once measured exercise in psychological tension becomes sci-fi motifed silliness. The ensuing bloodbath is satisfying, but at some cost to the intellectual premise at-large.
“Get Out” offers a low stakes point of entry into the national conversation about race, and is rich with content that will be the covetous stuff of armchair essayists for years to come. It is dismaying that we, as a nation, require pop-culture items to inspire the disaffected, not the constant, brutal headlines from the mass media. Yet, if measurable social progress demands more intelligent horror films, well then, let the heady, filmic massacre continue.
Running time: 103 Minutes
Now playing in theaters.