We Dare You to Hate ‘Get Out’
Jordan Peele's horror film is not just woke—it's actually great.
I must have been holding my breath the entire time. Not particularly because Get Out is so scary—though it is delightfully frightening—but because I was worried, worried that the string of rave reviews this buzzy horror film has been collecting since Sundance was a result of our blinding desperation for progressive art, especially at a time when art is constantly being positioned as some sort of commentary “in Trump’s America,” or something we need—“now more than ever.” If the extreme (and probably unwarranted) Birth of a Nation-level hype at last year’s Sundance—as a direct response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy—taught me anything, it’s to be wary of art that people “should” like. Get Out very easily could have been the obligatory Woke Movie to Love in 2017, but not necessarily a great one. And the untainted, nearly unprecedented 100% Rotten Tomatoes score had me more skeptical than excited. Well, never has an exhalation of breath at the closing credits been so satisfactory. Jordan Peele has made something scathing, hilarious, and—as unlikely as this may sound—totally fresh. I am pleased—who am I kidding? I’m fucking thrilled—to announce that Get Out is a legitimately great movie.
There’s been an incredible amount of pressure (a lot of “we were rooting for you”) riding on Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, which he also wrote, but you would never guess by the breezy nature in which he presents the film, like a satirical Key & Peele skit for most of its runtime. The punch line is pretty simple and it’s this, uttered by its main character, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black: “If there’s too many white people, I get nervous.” (Same; been there.) Peele draws out that joke expertly over the course of 103 minutes, taking the familiar Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner premise of a white girl introducing her black boyfriend to her family for the first time, and ratcheting up the tension with plot twists and jump scares. But Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film is no horror flick at the end of the day (unless you count the cringe-worthy manner in which Joanna Drayton says, “It never occurred to me that I would fall in love with a negro!”).
Get Out, as much as it is a “racism is the true horror here” movie, is also a more traditional horror film, taking cues from Rosemary’s Baby (uninformed victim of a sinister community), and Night of the Living Dead and Candyman (racially charged classics), as well as the more recent The Purge series, which is a straight-up “white people are crazy” franchise. It’s also, simply, a spin on the trope of black people dying early in scary movies. But in Peele’s racial horror, his lead isn’t dropped in the middle of some white supremacist county, with neo-Nazi skinheads and hooded KKK members running about. The white people in this movie smile at you and act cordial to your face. Chris’s girlfriend’s parents (played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are the type of white people who say, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term,” and probably insist they’re “color blind.” Micro-aggressions (or maybe just aggressions) are saved for the girlfriend’s brother, played with a potent level of psychosis by Caleb Landry Jones. But the most perfectly cast actor here is perhaps Allison Williams, who you know as Marnie from Girls. I believe she was born to play the role of “the white girlfriend” (holy shit, she is so, so good in this).
Although Get Out becomes a horror movie only later on, it works on the creeping terror level throughout because it’s not outwardly antagonistic. There’s an interesting balance of not just racism, but a simultaneous fetishization of black bodies and cultural appropriation. Even more eerily cordial are the other black characters, Georgina and Walter (Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson), who feel like brainwashed suburbanites straight out of The Stepford Wives. They’re not just the only black people around, they’re also “the help” (which Chris is visibly uncomfortable with), but they do their chores with absolute complacency. Georgina is no Tilly circa 1967. Meanwhile, Lakeith Stanfield—whom Chris first sees as “a fellow brother” amidst a sea of white people—turns out to be just as white as they come. This revelation comes as the first real sign something sinister is at work here.
A great premise does not always make for a great movie. Fortunately Get Out executes this concept with self-awareness and humor from start to finish—with the frequent comic relief of Chris’ TSA officer friend Rod (LilRel Howery), who serves as the surrogate audience member of this film. (He makes audience-like commentary out loud and constantly assumes there’s weird sex slave shit happening with the white folks.) We already knew Peele’s prowess in storytelling (and we’ve seen a proto-Get Out glimpse with that skit about zombies who refuse to eat black people), but his directorial gift was, frankly, unexpected. Consider it an added bonus to this gem of a film. Isn’t it wonderful when woke art also happens to be great art? Get Out is a best-case scenario for the genre.