Get Out is a bonkers little film that mixes humor, horror, and satire to comment vividly on racism in America. The genius of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, however, is that you don’t need to catch all of the subtext to enjoy it as an engrossing genre film. In fact, you’ll probably need a second viewing to reevaluate all the subtleties you miss the first time. It’s hard to imagine that 2017 will produce a smarter, more genuinely disturbing horror show.
This show is premised on a clash of cultures, white and black. When lily-white Rose (Allison Williams) proclaims that her parents “are not racist”, her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is skeptical. His concern reaches panic levels when he sees that Rose’s parents employ a black groundskeeper and housekeeper.
Her dad, a distinguished neurosurgeon named Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), is hardly happy that she’s bringing home a black man. He can’t quite see himself as racist, however. Instead, he proclaims, “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term!” Both he and Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), exhibit a down-to-earth charm that doesn’t quite smooth over their casual racism. They’re just clueless suburbanites. How sinister could they really be?
For viewers not attuned to the effects of such cluelessness, Get Out builds slowly to its reveal. Bizarre incidents accrue. Rose’s off-kilter brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) greets Chris with an impromptu jujitsu challenge. Then there’s the automaton delivery of the groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson), and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) that resembles something out of The Stepford Wives. Watching Georgina tearfully proclaim her love for the Armitages might be the film’s most disturbing delight.
Georgina’s impossibly vexed situation grants entry into the distressing complexities of racism, gender, and class in the America that will be familiar to viewers of Key and Peele. As on the sketch comedy show, characters here are drawn sharply and to expose difficult truths. Rose suggests that Chris pack his “cozy clothes” for their trip to the Armitage estate, indicating her unacknowledged sense of privilege. When what appears to be a routine traffic stop turns into an instance of racial profiling, Chris is far less concerned than an apoplectic Rose.
Once the couple arrives at Rose’s childhood home, we see how she might have come to be so ignorant, if sweet. Each member of her family is both creepy and endearing. Keener brings a mesmerizing stillness and measured delivery to Missy’s maternal hovering. Dean babbles excitedly about his father losing an Olympic qualifying race to Jesse Owens (“He almost got over it,” Dean concedes) and or invites stuffy guests at his garden party to partake of “sparklers and bingo!” Here the film invites us to worry for Chris: when Dean stares a bit too long at him, we’re terrified of what might lurk behind Dean’s good-natured smile.
Chris has some support from his best friend Rod (LilRel Howery), a vigilant TSA officer. Howery is amazing in what should be little more than comic relief. Rod is not only hilarious but also capable and courageous, providing welcome back-up as Chris makes his way through this increasingly overt hostile world.
That world is rendered in ways to make sure you see what’s going on. Peele takes some pointers from Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin to build our sense of queasy apprehension. That and the obvious Stepford Wives influence make for an environment that’s both absurd and deeply troubling. The Armitages are the kind of neighbors you invite to a backyard barbecue even though you worry that they might damage the lawn sprinklers. Each surreal episode in Get Out makes either outcome seem equally likely, which is a credit to Peele’s adroit script. There’s a cruel insanity pulling Chris into the void, but we’re never really sure what it is or what it wants with him.
That insanity is racism, at once plain and hidden. It’s easy to be sickened by the Armitages’ obvious displays of bigotry, most of which are manifest in the reprehensible Jeremy. He seethes with homoerotic rage while marveling at Chris’ physique, advising him that he could be “a beast” with the proper mental and physical training. It’s hard to miss the point here. Get Out uses this nauseating realization to confirm black fears of white America in horrific and hilarious ways. By the time the film ends, you realize that Peele has deftly preached a sermon using this film as his medium.
That end is a bit too crazy, however, as the film indulges in horror movie violence and clichés. Like the slow-building clues along the way, the finalé makes a few statements about film conventions and systemic oppressions. It may be that the film is underlining how the culture creates the very monster it fears the most, making clear the monstrosity of that culture. Or maybe it just wants to give viewers a firecracker ending that will send them home feeling satisfied. Let’s say it’s both. As the film views white people from the outside, it encourages everyone to recognize the horrors they present.
Get Out will burrow into your subconscious. Irrational moments that seem designed for provocation take on new meaning as you ponder them later. You’ll realize why Walter runs around like a madman in the middle of the night, and feel confirmed by a shared understanding. That’s the sign of a good film.