… because a black mind is a terrible thing to waste.
You know what they say: You’ll always remember your first time – with a black man.
In a startling writer-director debut, Jordan Peele’s arm-gripping thriller GET OUT is a renaissance for the horror genre. But it won’t do shit for race relations.
Chris is about to meet his girlfriend Rose’s parents for the first time. And she hasn’t told them he’s black. Midnight-dark Daniel Kaluuya is Chris, paired with the angular, porcelain-white Allison Williams as Rose (like a young Jennifer Connelly), so we immediately recognize the trope. Ah, we say, it’s an update of 1967’s GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.
But the familiarity of black-boy-meeting-white-parents-uncomfortably is merely a starting point. GET OUT will take fresh blistering turns that propel it into the ranks of modern classic: exploring race relations comedically (whites being overly sensitive and pandering), and in disturbing ways (all the blacks at Rose’s party speaking like Richard Pryor speaking like Whitey), nudging thematically near THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975), ultimately landing in the virgin science territory explored in THE MACHINE (2013), SELF/LESS (2015), and Kevin Costner’s CRIMINAL (2016).
This racially-charged horror-comedy actually puts another spin on how Whitey wants to get into the black person’s head.
GET OUT opens with a young black man searching for an address in an antiseptic tree-lined suburb. The streets are bare, the lawns are spotless; he is on the phone to a friend, detailing his unease as the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER suburban night closes in. We only slowly come to the realization that he feels fear on this whitest of Whitey streets. Jordan Peele immediately grabs our attention with his canny handling of this role-reversal; we have been conditioned to believe clean = pure, but this young man has been displaced, and the unfamiliar darkness has teeth.
This unease will continue to throb at our temples throughout this suspenseful film, the surprises and reveals will stagger us, and the payoffs in this storyteller’s story will be mighty. Unbound by the constraints of PG-13, GET OUT can also delve deep into disturbing themes, graphic gore, and adult swearing; seemingly insignificant elements that allow a movie to soar above the morass of Young Adult slashers-disguised-as-horror.
Bradley Whitford is Rose’s surgeon dad, Dean Armitage, overplaying his friendliness toward Chris (as, I believe, every father overplays their brah quotient to the man who is fucking their daughter). The running gag, “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term,” becomes even more funny and damning in this age of a white supremacist president. Catherine Keener is mother Missy, a professional hypno-therapist, also with a very fake smile for her daughter’s sex mate, always with a cup of tea, spoon ominously stirring. Caleb Landry Jones is Rose’s brother (not looking like his usual redneck hillbilly axe-murderer, but just as ominous in his big boy suit).
Chris meets the black maid (Betty Gabriel) and black groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson), both with decidedly Pryor-Whitey accents. Something is very awry, and at first blush, we think there is some kind of brainwashing going on. The maid meets Chris in his room and furtively tells him, “The Armitages are so good to us,” with a wide fake smile cracking her face, “They treat us like family,” as a single tear runs down her cheek at the same time. It is like she is bursting to tell him something joyous, but can’t bring herself to because he is not indoctrinated enough to see its joyousness. OR she is fighting to tell him something horrifying, but knows the consequences should she succumb. When we discover the secret behind this performance, it is doubly astounding. All the performances (from Kaluuya and Williams, to the bit players) are this brilliant and nuanced and guarded. GET OUT is one of those movies you have to watch twice, to see what everyone in the movie knew, that you didn’t at the time.
With her stirring spoon, Missy hypnotizes Chris out of craving cigarettes – and into something much more sinister, revealed only in the climax… Extracting a damning confession from Chris about the night his mother died, Missy sends Chris into “the sunken place” – where he can see the outside world as if on a faraway TV, but is paralyzed into inaction… Like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, Peele captures that ineffable dream state of flailing limbs, silent screaming and drowning in quicksand slow motion.
Like every great director, we sense Peele’s attention to the little things: the GPS readout that seems to actually be leading to the parents’ house; the sound of the stirring spoon under dialogue, the creak on the floor as the maid steps closer to Chris, the evocative soundtrack by Michael Abels, the fact that Rose and Chris hit a stag on their journey (the stag, a metaphor for black masculinity); there is also a trophy stag head mounted in the game room, and later, a key character is stabbed on the horns of a stag. Metaphor overload!
At the Armitage party, it seems every rich white redneck relative of Rose’s has been invited to eye the curiosity that is Rose’s black boyfriend, each of them adding their 2-cents of inadvertent racism to the Awkward Stew. “I know Tiger.” “Black is in fashion.” “Is he good in bed?”
Chris meets a lone brother at the party (Lakeith Stanfield) who looks like Dave Chappelle, and speaks like Dave Chappelle’s version of a white man. He is married to a much older white woman. And when Chris puts out his fist in familiarity, Chappelle wraps his hand around the fist, like a person who doesn’t know what a fist bump is. There’s something mighty whitey going on around here.
The only party guest resembling a well-adjusted human is a blind art dealer named Hudson (ever-compelling Stephen Root, who funnily also played a blind racist in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?), who, ironically, admires Chris’s “eye” as a photographer. He would be involved in the movie’s scientifically-disturbing climax.
Comedian Lil Rel Howery is TSA agent Rod, Chris’s best friend, tasked to care for Chris’s dog, but also offering unsolicited conspiracy theories to Chris about his trip to Whiteyville; Chris tells him all the black people at the house “missed the movement.” Classic! With the movie’s R-rating, Rod can go apeshit on lurid descriptions of white people making black people their sex slaves. He’s the voice of the audience, the comic relief, and he’s overdosing on Hannibal Buress.
The slogan lures us, “From the mind of Jordan Peele.” A certain quirkiness and quality implied. Peele is, of course, one half of the breakout comedy duo KEY & PEELE, which took the ball from CHAPELLE’S SHOW and ran with it. How does this admittedly gifted comedic actor break out with such a mustered directorial debut? If we recall, many of the sketches in KEY & PEELE rivaled cinematic production values (Post-Apocalyptic Hunt, Retired Military Specialist Decker, PC Pirates), so Peele learned well from watching the most gifted production crews at work.
I saw a comment wondering how white people and black people would be looking at each other after GET OUT, when the lights came on in the theater.
Luckily, I got out on my big black stag.