March 01, 2017

Jordan Peele's smart, scary "Get Out" taps into a terrifying world of white devils.

Get Out, a savvy, unpredictable comic-horror film written and directed by actor and comedian Jordan Peele of Key and Peele fame, opens on a stately suburban neighborhood at night, where a young black man is walking to a house, feeling disoriented in an ostensibly white neighborhood. Cinematically speaking, of course, this neighborhood feels familiar, as though Peele had found and recaptured the same shooting locations of John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film which subverts the cozy banality of suburbia and turns it into a venue for nightmares: the big houses and the maze-like streets lined with tall, massive trees. Carpenter introduced the Boogeyman into this otherwise safe place as a dangerous outside force disturbing the peace; in Get Out, the Boogeyman isn’t a stranger, but a resident, and the silence isn’t the presence of peace, maybe just the absence of life.

Jordan Peele possesses a keen understanding for how the horror genre works, and his nods to John Carpenter continue in this scene as an ominous (white) car sidles up next to the unsuspecting young man, and we know, instantly, that the driver of this car is a threat. “Not tonight,” the young man keeps saying, feeling nervous and instinctively expecting trouble, and redirecting himself, away from the car. But it’s already too late. The director’s use of visual trickery, not to mention his talent for building suspense, give us a pleasurably tingly feeling. Thrillers work best when we feel we’re in the hands of a capable filmmaker, and with Get Out, Jordan Peele proves himself more than capable.

In an era when the horror genre seems mostly exhausted (sidetracked by countless demon possession thrillers and mostly forgettable remakes and reinventions), Jordan Peele has fashioned something unique: a racially tense thriller where the black guy is the victim-hero, a reinvention of the Jamie Lee Curtis character in Halloween. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, giving a fine, perfectly measured performance), a Brooklyn photographer, has been dating Rose (Allison Williams), a rather typical, boring-ass white girl, for five months.

Nothing captures whiteness quite like the image of Rose, sitting in her bedroom, eating dry Fruit Loops in a bowl and drinking a tall glass of milk through a straw as “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” blasts from her earbuds and she looks up pictures of shirtless, musclebound black men on Bing (!). We may be wondering what Chris sees in Rose, until an incident with a police officer, who clearly exhibits hostility toward Chris, reassures us: Rose stands up for her man, and the policeman backs down. And now they’re off to the country to meet Rose’s family. But it’s clear from almost the moment Chris steps foot inside their secluded, perfectly manicured brick house that Mom and Dad (played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford with a chilling degree of restrained hostility) are shifty, that Rose has misjudged them when she assures Chris that “they are not racist.” After all, they voted for Obama: the new white proof against prejudice.

The parents are well-educated professionals: Mom is a shrink who specializes in hypnosis, and Dad is a neurosurgeon. But these learned white liberals, it turns out, are just as scary as any blue-collar white conservatives. Mr. and Mrs. Armitage have invited a bunch of old (and I do mean old) friends over for the evening, and these guests exhibit a creepy fascination with Chris: one old man asks him about his golf swing and waxes on about his love of Tiger Woods; one woman grips Chris’s bicep, gushing over his muscles. Another lady, standing beside her frail, oxygen-tank-carrying husband, asks an embarrassed Rose: “Is it true? Is it better?” (Meaning, the stereotype about black men in the bedroom.) Chris is a specimen, the embodiment of white fantasies of blackness, whether it’s the thrill of being ravaged by a “black beast” or the lust after his perceived physical and athletic superiority.

The Armitages have a pair of black servants: Walter and Georgina (played by Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel), and they are the Black Stepford wives, creepily cheerful and uptight, and about as formal in their speech as the Queen of England. Both Georgina and Walter walk around as if in a fog: she keeps house, he tends to the grounds, and they serve their “masters” with the utmost devotion, unless something upsets them, like when a tear rolls down Georgina’s cheek, and we know, although we cannot quite put our finger on it, that something has control of her, that the real Georgina has been captured and locked away, screaming and crying out, but unable to communicate the terrifying truth.

The same is true of Logan (LaKeith Stanfield), the only other black guest at the party, who’s the apparent husband of a white woman more than twice his age. Logan dresses and talks and walks like a prep school kid turned law student, studying for the bar in between bouts of pleasuring his lustful white cougar-woman. But when Chris snaps Logan’s picture, the flash of his phone triggers a violent, frantic outburst: Logan rushes at Chris with his arms outreached in agony, pleading with him to leave. Again it feels like the real “Logan” has been a prisoner all this time, momentarily freed, it seems, by the flash of a camera.

Peele uses all kinds of smart visuals and sounds to make us jump, and to paint suggestions in our minds: the flash of the camera, the sound of Catherine Keener clinking her teacup with a spoon (which puts Chris into a trance), the close-up shot of Georgina, a harried battle raging inside her mind between her true self and the brainwashed/hypnotized self: tears stream down her face as she locks into a smile, repeating “No. No. No.” But Peele doesn’t give in by explaining everything away. He’s planted enough clues, and plotted Get Out so masterfully, that exposition is basically unnecessary, and that’s the mark of a good director.

The premise behind Peele’s film is a canny metaphor for how white people have taken everything from black people. During their drive to the house in the country, a deer jumps in front of their car. After they have investigated the damage to Rose’s vehicle, Chris stares forlornly at the dying creature as it utters haunting cries. Right then, we know that this deer is Chris. Later, when he’s being held prisoner inside a wood-paneled game room with a retro television set, Chris stares at the glassy-eyed head of a buck mounted on the wall. That’s what Chris is to these people: a creature to be conquered, an assortment of valuable abilities and strengths to be harnessed, a commodity to be fetishized.

With Lil Rel Howery, who provides comic relief (and good advice, like the title phrase) as Rod, Chris's best friend, and a TSA employee; also featuring Caleb Landry Jones and Stephen Root. Written by the director.