It’s probably pretty easy for a certain segment of society to act like a racist without ever realizing they’re doing so consciously. You may assume empathy and even genuinely feel empathy, but for whatever reason, be it unfamiliarity or decades of pop culture that make you assume how everyone acts, your interactions prove to be little more than micro-aggressions that serve as a biting reminder of the clear power divide despite living in a post Civil Rights America.
Get Out, the unlikeliest of directorial debuts from the Jordan Peele -- the Peele half of Comedy Central sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, is full of the sorts of people who will walk up to the black man in the room and make sure to tell him that they voted for Obama (twice!) and gladly would have done it again if given the chance. Its premise, a clear twist on the 1967 classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, sees Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) invited for a weekend away to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). He asks her if they know he’s black. She asks why it should matter? But he knows. It always matters.
And sure, Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are outwardly warm and welcoming, but there’s still a clear sense that he’s an other to them, purposefully or not, that bubbles under the surface of their conversations throughout the first day they spend at the family’s opulent, secluded upstate New York home. It doesn’t help that the only two other black people in the area are the family’s servants, their maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and their groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson). And something seems...off about the both of them. They smile too much. They hold stares too long. Something below the surface almost seems to be fighting to get to the surface. It seems entirely possible that The Stepford Wives are the ones coming to dinner this time.
Peele seems more than comfortable taking his time building the story and the relationships of Get Out, working to establish the naivete of Rose and her family, their assumptions about race relations so far from the real world, their good intentions not counting for all that much to a man who deals with prejudice day in and day out. Kaluuya proves to be an excellent vessel for this commentary, his side-eyed glances saying more than a self-righteous monologue ever could. And as the conspiracy deepens and Get Out becomes the horror movie it was always going to be, he adapts well, offering the audience a protagonist they can get behind. Williams (somehow making her major film debut, which seems impossible) has an aura of innocence and defiance that makes her the perfect foil for Chris’ cynicism, as well as believable as the sort of person who would dress down a white cop for asking for a black man’s license when he wasn’t even driving the car. Whitford is clearly having a blast as the overly awkward dad who wants to convince the black guy that he’s hip to their worldview, and Keener lays into the sinister undertones that come to define the film’s second half.
One must be coy, as Get Out twists and turns quite wildly in its second and third acts, in ways not even discernable by the film’s egregiously plot-heavy trailers. What's abundantly clear, though, is the undeniable confidence and skill of Jordan Peele as a director, especially considering he’s working in a genre outside his comedy background. His visual eye is accomplished (the way the film presents hypnotism is a treat), and his mastery of pacing and tone belies his lack of experience. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise; Key and Peele wore their genre influences on their sleeve. And Get Out is certainly a funny film from time to time, with Whitford and LilRel Howery (playing Chris’ TSA agent friend turned audience surrogate turned aggressive scene stealer) providing the lion’s share of laughs, but the comedy isn’t what sticks long term. The truly satisfying aspects of the narrative, the themes that work the best and feel the most trenchant, rely on the sorts of plot movements that would cross over the spoiler threshold. This is a film aggressively of its time, concerned with fears of subgugation and the co-opting of black culture, and it treats those ideas with the time and patience they deserve. Horror is often a genre ripe for social commentary, offering the opportunity to use the heightened emotions of fear and peril to get to the core of society’s anxieties. Peele understands this on both an instinctual and an intellectual level, and GET OUT is all the better for it.
In the post Key and Peele world, it seemed Keegan Michael Key would perhaps be the more accomplished of the two, landing roles in the likes of Don't Think Twice and the upcoming Predator remake, but with Get Out, Peele proves he’s no slouch, not as actor but as auteur. He’s made what is not only the smartest and best release that low budget horror label Blumhouse has ever had the fortune to put its name on, but an accomplished piece of horror that stands on its own as an irresistible thrill ride. Filled with excellent performances, strong camerawork (featuring some truly creepy extended close-ups) and claustrophobic pacing, Get Out is an early feather in 2017’s cinematic cap and a calling card for years to come.