“I know what you’re thinking: rich white family, black servants…it’s the old cliche.”
These crazy kids, for a while you almost think the world is going to let them make it. Young, optimistic, and clearly in love, they make a striking and beautiful couple, though, unfortunately, the one descriptor, almost a reflex, still might possibly occur to an observer before the other. In some ways, they are, indeed, opposites, and also living proof of the attraction axiom. Their very names practically betray their backgrounds – hers as a daughter of suburban privilege, and his as an orphaned city kid who had to scrape by. Rose Armitage is the name of someone who could well have caught the first lifeboat and watched afar from relative comfort as the Titanic sank. Chris Washington, by comparison, is the name of someone who would’ve been lucky to find his way aboard in the first place, likely meeting his fate alongside so many others who never even made it above decks during the disaster. 2017 is not 1917, of course, and these are no star-crossed lovers. He is a photographer with an artist’s eye. Her interests are a little more elusive, not dwelled upon, but she is emotionally present at all times, warm and supportive and flirty. They make each other smile. They’ve been together for four months now, and things are going well, so well that the time has come to introduce him to her family. As an African-American, Chris has serious instinctive misgivings about spending a weekend marooned amongst the country club set. Rose is sweet, but her capacity to reassure only ever goes so far.
Unlike many other horror films with a mind to social commentary, Jordan Peele’s audacious, unsettling Get Out works from the inside out. Though the prevailing menace, like a shadowy stalker or sub-Romero zombie horde, is, indeed, an external one, it remains elusive and near shapeless until the end. Instead, we are invited – nay, required – to view each new odd or distressing development through the eyes of a single character, the protagonist Chris, who wants to give Rose’s family the benefit of the doubt, and outwardly forgives a good deal of strangeness. The audience soon discovers, to its alarm, that this perfectly pleasant setup is sketchier than even Chris is able to intuit, though he at least recognizes something is amiss with the country house from the jump. Get Out rarely strays from Chris’ line of sight and feverishly evolving thought processes, which is the proper – I would argue only – method of effectively setting up what becomes eventually a banquet of macabre, racially pressurized largesse. Writer and first time director Peele, famous as one half of premier post-Chappelle Comedy Central sketch team Key & Peele, puts a lot behind his clever premise – sort of a cross-pollination of The Stepford Wives and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? – but is not quite disciplined – or, perhaps, concerned – enough to impose a consistent tone on the proceedings, counterweighting the above potencies with sharp veers into character humor and wielding his tremendously effective underlying mix of workaday social anxiety and simmering racial tension at one moment like a scalpel and, another, a blowtorch. Though Get Out’s overall success rate is debatable, at no point does the viewer feel like a passive observer.
Chris, played by appealing British newcomer Daniel Kaluuya as a study in focused naturalism, is a cool customer who takes quiet pride in his ability to roll with social punches. He’s not looking for trouble and, to be fair, art house power couple Bradley Whitford (West Wing, Cabin in the Woods) and Catherine Keener (40-Year-Old Virgin, Your Friends and Neighbors), sublime casting choices as Rose’s parents, seem incapable, at first blush and beyond, of providing any. Sometimes trouble just finds you. Chris’ best friend, a loudmouthed but loyal TSA agent (LilRel Howery, funny, albeit on loan from a different movie), warns him categorically against making the trip. After Rose hits a deer on their drive up, she calls out the attending motorcycle cop for asking to see Chris’ ID even though he was only a passenger. Six seasons of infuriating impenetrability as a preening narcissism bomb on HBO’s Girls has made it disorienting to see Allison Williams so believably portray an un-ironically supportive romantic partner, though that’s hardly the last surprise she’ll be party to. Her father, legacy neurosurgeon Whitford – a man so fundamentally non-racist that first Rose then, as if on cue, he, informs us he, “would’ve voted for Obama a third time if they’d let me” – later takes his prospective son-in-law on a grand tour of the handsome Armitage estate. Chris’ attention is distracted by the presence of two unusually stoic black…servants. That night, the Armitage’s boarding school reject son arrives to upend stuffy dinner conversation and ruffle feathers. He thinks Chris has the look of an MMA fighter about him, or at least the potential, given his “genetic advantages”. Rose and, to a lesser degree, her father dress him down while, across the room, Keener, intense but aloof, herself a renowned psychotherapist, says all the technically right things while coolly regarding Chris like a lab rat and rhythmically stirring her tea – clink-clink-clink – without ever seeming to take a sip.
The inverse of the voyeuristic thriller, perfected by Hitchcock and cribbed by decades of successive also-rans, is the paranoiac.* The best examples of both forms actively and increasingly involve the viewer in the principal’s misgivings and obsessions. Chris actually begins as a protagonist of the first type – whose fascination with the Armitage servants only intensifies when his initial hunger for a simple, sympathetic face is summarily rebuffed – and gradually shifts into the opposite role with the feel of a frog in a stove pot unaware until late he is slowly being boiled alive. Chris goes with the flow but offers little, reserved and reflexively guarded. Compared to the carnival exhibit of vapid, nouveaux riche stereotypes that flood the Armitage grounds early day two in search of a garden party, and particularly next to Rose and her mother**, Chris comes off as somewhat personality-free, a half-empty vessel with everyman appeal into which shared anxieties can be poured. Part of why Peele hammers some of his thematic details harder while floating others is to help the audience understand, perhaps a tad over-enthusiastically, what Chris is thinking. Though sometimes inelegant, this approach affords the character shades of surprising additional vulnerability as what was already an atypical fish-out-of-water scenario appreciably darkens. An uncomfortable lot of guests do seem especially interested in Chris, though not necessarily in getting to know him in a conventional sense. Since Peele offers no other conduit, this relentless attention, pitched at differing frequencies of insensitivity ranging from mostly innocuous to dog whistle, can’t help but feel profoundly disturbing.
*For paranoid greatness, think Gene Hackman in Coppola’s “The Conversation”, or, in a slower, altogether more upsetting burn, Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”, a film to which “Get Out” also owes a kindred nod. Hitchcock mastered this formula as well, and Peele quotes his oeuvre liberally/lovingly, framing the Armitage maid like the erstwhile Mrs. Bates in an upstairs window, or using her mere, sudden presence to spring the film’s single, supremely effective jump scare. Peele has a larger point to make here, or at least a prevailing mood to set, but his intermittent foreground heavy-handedness belies in how he sketches Chris a delicious truth inherent in the voyeuristic/paranoiac spectrum, which is how easily a given subject – think Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo” or “Rear Window” – can slip into both roles simultaneously.
**Performances worth singling out for praise include the near-astonishing Keener, who exudes menace even being motherly, calmly explaining psychiatric principles (and stirring her tea), Williams’ lived-in, 360-degree portrayal of Rose, and the welcome arrival of party crasher Stephen Root as a choosy (and blind) bon vivant art dealer, who seems for a time the only font of sanity to be found amongst the tone deaf, cloying society rabble.
Different viewers will, of course, have different sensitivities, and levels of such. The late Roger Ebert wrote in his memoir Life Itself that, “the movies are like an engine that generates empathy,” and Get Out is a terrific case in point. For example, I didn’t need to have any experience as a female FBI trainee for the subtext around institutional and greater societal sexism in The Silence of the Lambs to resonate with me. Likewise, as a white male north of forty, I immediately caught onto and internalized Peele’s pointed dialogue and various behavioral cues – it’s not exactly a subtle dance he’s doing – and, as a result, spent both those moments and the remainder of Get Out in a state of rapt attention and steadily ratcheting discomfort. It’s almost a shame when the film suddenly pivots from being a fascinatingly creepy, racially charged drawing room mystery into a more standard issue shocker, with its revelatory, appropriately horrific denouement and bloody final showdown, though the scene that delivers us there – a desperate Chris finds himself blocked off from polite means of escape, surrounded by no longer smiling faces as Rose digs through her apparently bottomless handbag in a tortuous search for car keys – is an emotional knockout. Even the lurid climax – not so much a proper twist as a particularly twisted explanation, even logical after a fashion and more brutal the longer you consider it – can’t help but slightly dim the power and intrigue of the film’s first two acts, though let nobody suggest Peele, having made his name in comedy, gave less than 100% in his horror debut to match a provocative social premise with potent, largely apolitical thrills. The ingenious eleventh hour surprise even works, on multiple levels. I may not have literally walked a mile in Chris’ Nikes, but by the end of Get Out, I nevertheless felt a lingering, ragged exhilaration, as if I’d gotten…somewhere.
“Get Out” (2017) 3/4 stars