This is the surprise movie of the month, more accurately of the year, so far.
The poster isn’t very attractive, six fragmented images seen through the shattered prism of a glass mirror, or perhaps a window pane, the film’s title crammed into the bottom right-hand corner. The plot sounds like a junior remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? but without major star actors to seduce a £10 pound ticket out of your pocket for a ‘luxury’ seat. All in all, not a movie you’d go running to see over and above all the other fare on show. Well, it’s a wee corker.
Chris (black) and his girlfriend, Rose, (white) have reached the meet-the-parents milestone of dating, a tricky situation all teenagers will have experienced, only it’s worse for Chris and Rose because of the interracial aspect. She invites him for a weekend getaway ‘upstate’ with parents Missy and Dean.
At first, Chris reads the family’s overly accommodating behavior as nervous attempts to deal with their daughter’s interracial relationship, but as the hours go by a series of disturbing discoveries lead him to a truth he never foresaw. Thinking about it, the story is bonkers but it works.
The plot and the pacing of it is good news for writer-director Jordan Peele. It’s vigorous, sharp, often razor-sharp in its observations, a trenchant story bar a few hiccups in mood continuity, and, as it turns out, a terrific horror thriller. In places, the right places, it’s very funny, moments needed to release our tension. And there’s good satire too. There is also mischief and unsettling moments that challenge our preconceptions. This heady mixture is innovative and may account for the film garnering over $150 million at the box office so far, all on a small budget, not that mega-budgets guarantee excellence.
The story is simplicity itself, yet the seriousness of it gives it tremendous gravitas. A black man walking alone through white suburbs is in as much danger as any girl in a low-budget exploitative teenager slasher-flick. This is the reverse of the white guy story, car broken down, finding himself in an all-black ghetto, perhaps the deep South, or an all Mexican village filled with drug runners, eyes on his every move as he looks for the nearest bar.
Peele opens with that image, a long, tense, single take, a young man making his way down a sidewalk at night, studying the interchangeable homes for an address he’s looking for. A car eases up behind him, moving too slowly. This is a moment we’ve seen in countless gangster films and yet the atmosphere is so quickly planted in our minds that we find the situation terrifying.
The best way to describe this clever oddball is to remind how we tell a scary anecdote. I’m walking back to my car and all of a sudden this – here the speaker glances around – big scary man appears behind me, so I just kept walking faster and faster, but he speeds up too. I was crapping myself, scared witless.
There are places in Scotland and England, inner city deprived areas, low-end of town, that many a middle-class wanderer will avoid. Conversely, I’ve seen a group of thugs looking to make trouble, stop when they reach a middle-class area, uncomfortable at the alien surroundings they can’t dominate. Like a dog at a gate barking loudly at passers-by, they turn around and disappear in another direction, again like a dog, unwilling to leave known territory for the unknown. Peele has dared a radical inversion, and he’s enlisted all the power of popular genre filmmaking to do it.
The first scene of Get Out casts the black man as the innocent victim, the car’s presumably white driver as the malevolent force, the suburban street as the space the force haunts. One minute in, this movie makes it viscerally clear it’s not black guys who are scary, it’s neighbourhoods packed with sheltered dopes who quake at the very thought of black guys.
The courageous writer-director Peele is taking huge risks and playing with fire, playing in the best sense of the word. I must admit to knowing nothing about him before seeing the film. A quick e-mail to LA pals find’s Peele half of a comedy duo called Key & Peele, whose stock-in-trade is the conventional sketch based on some truth or other. Peele’s experience with raw gags that hang by the fingernails on horror is here put to great use, horror and comedy that work with fluidity.
The main protagonists are played with absolute conviction by Daniel Kaluuya, a young, black photographer, and Allison Williams as his white girlfriend. What he encounters, at first, could be a conventional television sketch about well-heeled, insular white liberals. Rose’s neurosurgeon father (Bradley Whitford) is a man who can’t resist telling Chris that he would have voted for Obama a third time and why. Rose’s psychiatrist mother (the always reliable Catherine Keener) makes things more awkward every time she tries to put her black guest at his ease. And Rose’s brother tends to utter the kind of crass comments of awkward youth we’ve all met in new company at a party, the one struggling to time a joke or give his story a punch line.
Things at this stage move from the awkward to the surreal. Making things creepy is the wealthy family’s pair of oddly out-of-time dark-skinned servants both of whom beam as they work, regarding their white masters as if in a Thirties film where the colonial property owner boasts to his guests about how fairly he treats his servant slaves.
In a comedy, these incidents might get a giggle or two but in Get Out are handled with a deftness that gives them an unexpected reverberation. Peele is obviously an entertainer with highly tuned comic skills, and he uses them like a weapon.
There’s an incident, for example, where the antagonist brother of Chris’s girlfriend seizes Chris’s bicep and begins a sentence with, “You know, with your genetic makeup…” The gag is simultaneously a sendup of white cluelessness, an evocation of the humiliation of being viewed as a body, and a clue in the convoluted mystery of what’s really going on in Rose’s house and her suburb.
And something is going on. Peele has counted the thrillers of Ira Levin (writer of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives) among his inspirations, and most of Get Out finds our main character Chris uncertain whether he’s the victim in a horror plot – or whether everyone just acts bizarre around him. Things happen to Chris he can’t understand, and the more he explains his anxieties to Rose, and the more she makes light of his fears, the worse things get. And he’s convinced her mother has hypnotised him, an almost impossible assertion to prove to innocent ears let alone a police officer.
How to sum up this gem of a discovery? Get Out is smart satire, with scary and comic riffs on slavery and assimilation. It’s also a smashing crowd-pleaser of a horror film, complete with mad science, cult-like crazies and homage passages to Hitchcock. There are faults. One tearful monologue gets dropped into precisely the wrong spot, killing the momentum after the craziest of scenes, but it’s an impressive directorial debut just the same.
Get Out is a surprise in concept and craft, with the scares never coming just when you expect them, and the secrets more audacious than you might be guessing. There’s plenty of bloody violence from the third act onwards with the terror escalating scene by scene, so film fans should be warned. Rotten Tomatoes has the film score in the mid-nineties.
The nicest surprise is the film is showing in your local multiplex, not in an out-of-the-way art house. You’ve a good chance of catching it before it disappears. Some reviewers (not critics) have given the film 4 stars. I’m not surprised. It’s shot and edited with tremendous professionalism. I’d like to give it 4 but I’m not so convinced by the ending, although until the denouement the film is very good indeed.
If you leave the movie as I did having enjoyed the jokes there’s still that nagging feeling its message is deadly serious. Peele is a budding iconoclast.
- Star rating: Three and a half stars
- Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Alison Williams, Katherine Keener
- Director: Jordan Peele
- Writer: Jordan Peele
- Music: Michael Abels
- Cinematography: Toby Oliver
- Duration: 1 hour 44 minutes
Under 3 stars poor or truly awful. 3 stars average. 3.5 well above average, very good in most parts with some originality. 4 is excellent. 4.5 just misses greatness. 5 outstanding in all aspects, a classic.