Get Out, the darkly hilarious directorial debut of sketch comedy kingpin Jordan Peele, definitely can’t be described as a Scary Movie style comedy-horror. Whilst it certainly elicits frequent cringing laughs, Peele has made a bona-fide fright flick that just happens to be funny. He knows how to make shadowy streets into menacing ones and turn silences into warnings from the abyss. His greatest stroke in Get Out, though, is to have hitched these genre elements to an evil that isn’t obscured by a hockey mask, but instead is more distressingly common than demons and serial killers: a kind of faux glib- liberal (gliberal?) commitment to equality that mutates into muted hostility when anyone with a different melanin count or culture moves in next door.
The film (which is a kind of genetic fusion of The Stepford Wives and Look Who’s Coming To Dinner) focuses on Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, of Sicario fame) as he prepares to accompany his girlfriend on a weekend trip to her hometown. Rose (Allison Williams) insists that her parents will have no problem with him being black. But once the two arrive at the massive suburban estate of Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), Chris is put through the casually racist wringer. On top of the insensitive questions and embarrassing attempts at small talk (“I would have voted for Obama for a third term,” Dean proudly declares, minutes after introducing himself), there’s just something vaguely… off about the whole place. Could it have something to do with the family’s black maid and gardener, both of whom exhibit personalities that oscillate from robotically ingratiating to unnervingly unhinged? Or maybe the way Missy, constantly stirring her tea, keeps trying to get Chris to agree to hypnosis to cure him of his smoking habit?
Whilst there is definitely a conspiracy to be unpacked in the film’s final third most of the truly effective moments come in the film excellent (and squirmingly awkward) first half which uses the horror movie framework to explore how racism and white privilege has mutated and evolved in the wake of the All-Lives Matter movement. There are more overt moments like a run-in with a bigoted state trooper, but some of the most effective material comes from the, shall we say, ‘charged’ interactions between Chris and his girlfriend’s family, particularly Dean’s constant smarmy paternalism (during one particularly awkward two minute stretch he is able to work what feels like a dozen variations on ‘boy’ into conversation) which helps turn the bucolic scenery into a social battlefield humming with tension, in a weird way when the real horror starts up in the third act it’s almost a relief.
Still it’s this fusion of race and horror that is Get Out’s real selling point, even with the Grand Guinol excess of the (admittedly technically effective) finale. A key moment that stuck with me involves Chris talking with one of the parents’ black servants, a maid, Georgina (a fantastic Betty Gabriel). When Chris confesses that he gets nervous when around a lot of white people, Georgina answers by advancing toward him with a shrieked volley of “no, no, no,” coupled with cascades of tears and a smile so wide it looks as if it could split her face in two, an image that instantly strips back layers of years to reveal the grinning minstrel show skull of America’s slave owning past. Peele often played the queasy racial interplay of modern day America for laughs in his sketch show, but it seems that post Trump he’s decided that the more appropriate response is screaming.