I don’t see a lot of horror movies, I should lead with that caveat, but for maybe the first time in my life, watching Jordan Peele’s new thriller taught me why it’s a genre people love. The visceral thrill of screaming, reeling, and cheering with the crowd at Get Out was a totally fulfilling experience.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that this is Peele’s directorial debut with a major motion picture. The movie is incredibly well-controlled and crafted. Peele moves between humor and tension with practiced ease. It’s clear that his work on comedy has well prepared him for working in horror, after all, both genres live and die on timing. The movie is also beautifully shot by Toby Oliver and includes some of the best photography in a movie so far this year. The film features standout performances from a charismatic Daniel Kaluuya, a deeply unsettling Betty Gabriel, and the auspicious use of Lilray Howery as comic relief. Howery has a line near the end of the movie that brought the house down.
Like I lead with, I don’t see a lot of horror, but while the bare bones of the story (of a new beau meeting family in an isolated location and learning that things are not as they seem) may tread familiar territory, it’s setting and characters are far from typical. Peele goes beyond just making an expertly crafted thriller. Like some of the best Key & Peele sketches, the film intersects with the underlying covert racism which runs deep in America’s veins. Racism as an idea is often set at the feet of the South, a legacy of the Civil War. But the racism presented in Get Out is of a different, but no less insidious sort, in the affluent northeastern neighborhood where the film is set. There aren’t any slurs being lobbed in the wealthy (and white) town that Rose (Allison Williams) takes boyfriend Chris (Kaluuya) so he can meet her parents. Here, racism takes the form of detached objectification. Similar to the way black culture is so swiftly and popularly adopted in white culture, this town and its denizens literally appropriate black bodies. Black men and women are kidnapped and, for all intents and purposes, becomes hosts for the wealthy and ailing and (mostly) white, who want to live in a fresh body.
When Chris arrives at the idyllic home, he knows to anticipate a certain level of “casual” racism from the privileged white family. Rose’s parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are never treated as the exception to the rule, though. They aren’t exceptions but rather an extreme end to the rule. The casual racism of liberal whites taken to its dramatic endpoint. After a chilling and silent auction scene, the man who buys the use of Chris’s body even claims that the appropriation has nothing to do with the color of his skin. Another party goer earlier had told Chris “black is in right now”. It’s a pointed and unflinching representation from Peele.
It’s a trope of horror films that the last person left is the virginal white girl. When Chris is left to make his escape, at a certain point all that he has left to fight back is his raw brutality, the very thing so often presented as the great stereotypical fear of suburban white people. Peele is acutely aware of the effect of showing a young black man kill his way through a white family and burning down their lakeside mansion. I even kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, anticipating a Night of the Living Dead inspired tragic ending for our hero. But Peele lets Chris ride away in exhausted triumph. It’s satisfying, but like Chris, wearily leaning against the car window, we’re left with the miasma of knowledge that while one particular and extreme case has been addressed, the underlying issues of racism that lead to the situation’s occurrence are still alive and well.