The new horror picture Get Out is advertised as being “From the mind of Jordan Peele,” and a beautiful mind it is. Peele made his name as the co-creator and co-star of the racially themed sketch comedy show Key and Peele, which he and Keegan-Michael Key followed up with last year’s feature comedy Keanu. Now Peele makes a bold turn to horror, writing and directing what he calls a “social thriller” or, to state the obvious, “a horror movie that is from an African American's perspective.”
The result is an imaginative, classically styled paranoid thriller speaking directly to an African-American audience (and indirectly to a white audience) while remaining playfully accessible to everyone else. After five months of dating, it’s time for young African-American photographer Chris Washington (a pitch-perfect Daniel Kaluuya) to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). “They are not racist,” Rose insists. “I would have told you.”
Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) enjoy the secluded sprawl of the affluent lakeside suburb Evergreen Hallow, but they take pains to make clear how progressive and, therefore (ha ha), not racist they are. The early movements of Get Out play the tension and comedy of coded racial language to the hilt, and were it “only” a comedy of mixed-race dating, Get Out would already be winning in the wittiness of its satire. Obviously, the film goes further: there’s something sinister going on in Evergreen Hallow, and the story’s satirical charge carries over into its horror.
Everywhere Chris turns he finds unsettling “Stepford” overtones, from the somewhat aggressive cheer of Rose’s parents to the psychotically blank demeanor of the Armitage’s two black servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson). The weirdness escalates by leaps and bounds when the Armitages host a mostly white party of locals, all of whom seem determined to make Chris’ blackness an issue (when not busting out the sparklers and Bingo).
Peele masterfully controls the tone to give the suspense and deliberately uncomfortable comedy their due without letting either overwhelm the other. In the process, the first-time feature director demonstrates an affinity and skill for horror that’s nearly equal to his comedy chops: like Chris, who’s a photographer of images “so brutal, so melancholic,” Peele has a good eye, and he crafts as many surreal nightmare visions (most notably a hypnosis sequence) as jump scares (not for nothing, Peele also gets a raft of terrific performances for his vivid cast of characters).
What’s most interesting about Get Out is how it taps into the same idea to fuel both its comedy and horror: the recognition of social truths. The movie won’t quite work on people who don’t already know to be true that racism still abounds in America (and specific racist legacies of the past linger in our problematic present), that black culture is envied, that white privilege is a thing (or “thang,” to quote one of Dean’s squirmy moments of cultural appropriation).
Just as comedy does, Get Out’s horror exaggerates for effect, busting out with a gonzo premise. But the wild ride has its roots in very real systemic racism, which puts Peele in good company as a purveyor of subversive, transgressive horror. Despite its terrible implications, his film is entertaining as all Get Out.