As Jordan Peele’s debut film opens, a young African American man walking by himself at night through a well-maintained suburb is abducted. Next scene: Rose Armitage invites her photographer boyfriend Chris Washington to meet her parents, who live in a large countryside estate. Chris is apprehensive because Rose’s parents don’t know that he’s black, but she teases that it would have been awkward—and completely unnecessary—to bring it up ahead of time. Soon after arriving for their weekend stay, however, Chris observes that the parents’ only two employees are black, and behave oddly. Is Chris imagining things, or there is something deeply wrong at the Armitage family estate?
Peele, who both wrote and directed this movie, has created a remarkably compelling story and tautly brought it to life, eliciting wonderful performances from his cast and crew. In my viewing on opening night, the audience was fully engaged, and expressed much praise on the way out. If at all possible, get into Get Out while it’s playing in theaters.
Though the trailer doesn’t suggest it, there’s substantial comedic relief, provided mostly by LilRey Howery as Chris’ TSA friend Rod Williams, and these intervals serve to heighten the horror. Getting an audience to laugh one moment and gasp the next is no easy task, but Peele manages it perfectly. Get Out is also smart in the way it sidesteps most genre conventions and forces us to redefine our expectations the deeper in we get. Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods (2012) similarly combined humor and horror while rewriting the rulebook, and is perhaps the most recent example I can think of that shares these traits.
Peele’s elegant script investigates not only the short distance between the conventional and the off-kilter, but the myriad assumptions we make about others in the course of daily life. On the most extreme side of this spectrum lie racism and prejudice, but more subtle forms of bias permeate the story, as for example the way Rod is treated, or when Chris assumes a certain kinship with another African American at the party, only to discover something quite different when the man turns around.
Peele himself has described this movie as a “social thriller.” For the first two thirds or so, essentially all of the tension derives from satirizing social norms, from stretching moments of intrinsically awkward social intercourse into profoundly disquieting events. Movies like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)—which Peele references explicitly in this NPR piece—and then, when the party guests arrive, The Stepford Wives (1972), are not only remixed in a contemporary way, but subverted in the service of a tightly focused and ultimately terrifying story which shifts to high-pitched horror in the third act.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Get Out is the cohesiveness of the script and the crafty foreshadowing of events, such as the deer incident on the drive, which creates expectations about local police and also leads directly to Dean Armitage’s rant about deer, or the taunts about jujitsu from Rose’s brother Jeremy at the dinner table. All of these bear fruit in the film’s final, blood-soaked act, and each payoff is immensely satisfying. When the full extent of the Armitage operation is revealed, we’re forced to re-evaluate earlier comments such as Dean Armitage’s observation, “We hired Georgina and Walter to help care for my parents. When they died I couldn’t bear to let them go,” and shudder at their true meaning.
Daniel Kaluuya delivers a finely-tuned performance that ratchets up the intensity and desperation proportionally to the needs of the script, finally suggesting self-revulsion at the violence of which he’s capable, while Allison Williams’ pivot from loving, supportive girlfriend to cold-hearted manipulator is blood-curdlingly good. Though Kaluuya and Williams shine, this is really an ensemble piece, with a deliciously disturbing turn by Catherine Keener as Missy Armitage, and short but memorable performances by Caleb Landry Jones as Jeremy, Marcus Henderson as Walter, Betty Gabriel as Georgina, and Stephen Root as Jim Hudson.
I found the conflation of a cult mentality with a wealthy elite to be well-handled. Recent films that have taken hard-hitting looks at cults, such as the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and the real-events-inspired The Sacrament (2013), tend to focus on commune-style idealism, but Get Out’s treatment is more reminiscent of classic fare such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). In this depiction, Get Out overlaps thematically with A Cure for Wellness (2017). If forced, I’d probably pick eel infestation and tooth decay over brain-slicing and hypnotic personality suppression, but that’s just me.
A few plot questions. Why did Rose leave her pictures in a red box for Chris conveniently to find? And given her documented connection with a series of missing persons—Chris’ friend Rod is aware of their relationship, so it doesn’t appear she tries to keep these relationships secret—wouldn’t she be under investigation or surveillance by the police? Maybe Chris’ instincts were sharper than she realized, and maybe the influence and protection of her family have kept Rose safe until now. After all, we don’t know how many Coagulated humans are out there in positions of influence.
Let’s talk about that bingo scene. While it was unfolding, I couldn’t help but make parallels with human auctioneering and slave trafficking, but it was only after the Coagula procedure was revealed that the scene’s true implications hit home. The idea of alien beings or supernatural entities “riding” human bodies is an old one in science fiction and has been used to great effect (see, for example, Robert Silverberg’s Nebula-winning “Passengers” from 1968) but the twist here of having some humans “ride” others against their will is a gut-punch literalization of abuse. It speaks dually to racial subjugation and to the domination of a rich elite over the middle and lower classes. Jim Hudson, who “wins” Chris during that chillingly silent auction, declares that he doesn’t care he’s black at all as long as he can use his eyes to see again. This complicates matters further by illustrating how a-racial lack of empathy can be just as nefarious as deliberate targeting.
“Behold the Coagula”; indeed. Coagulation, the gathering together or forming into a mass or group, is exactly what this film forces us to confront. The real Walter and Geordina are trapped inside “the sunken place,” mute passengers inside their own bodies, a powerful metaphor for loss of control. Their actions are governed by their super-imposed owners, and Get Out asks us to consider if we too run the risk of becoming submissive to the influence of our social cliques and group ideologies, letting others dictate our behavior instead of thinking for ourselves. The film-making art, with its communal group experience in theaters, may be used for evasion, but is also well-suited to asking questions such as the above. In the party, Chris seeks refuge from unpleasant circumstances by looking at others through his camera, just as we might seek escape by watching a movie. But his camera flash provides the key to understanding—and ultimately provides the mechanism for his survival. In the same way, Get Out not only invites us to partake in an absorbing, scary story, but asks us to reflect how such a story may be essential to our survival by empathizing with others.