“They are not racist.”
Horror and comedy have blended well since around the beginning of film for one key reason: the release that both allow from the audience. The building set-up is not unlike the quiet before the jump scare. Both utilize equations of timing to provoke an unconscious reaction. Because of these similarities, the horror-comedy is a well-tapped genre, especially in the last couple decades of works aiming their trajectory at the cult DVD bin. So it takes a particular level of skill to mine new ground in the territory, particularly from a first time director. What makes Jordan Peele’s Get Out so engaging, frightening and hysterical is that he knows exactly when to play the material straight; which it turns out is most of the time.
Of course it helps that Peele has more on his mind here than the basic gut reactions of laughter and screams. Get Out is not just a horror-comedy; it’s an outright satire of race relations in the world today. Perhaps that, though, describes too wide of a brush for what Peele is pulling off here. He’s looking precisely at the thin space between overt racism and more subtly bigotry, of the “they mean well” variety. These lines find their ominous intersection in wealthy suburbia, where Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to visit the family of his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams in one of the most perfect pieces of casting this decade).
Upon their arrival, Chris is treated exactly how he expected: with a taught politeness from Rose’s mom, Missy (Catherine Keener) and dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford). The latter can’t stop saying “my man” or complimenting President Obama; the former is a bit dismissive with a black maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). This tension, which Chris is largely willing to wave off for the time being, is only exacerbated by the entrance of Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), whose talking of “genetics” more directly separates Chris from the family and town around him. And that town comes into full view during a party, wherein the neighbors all gather and examine Chris with an odd detachment, as if sizing up a puppy at the pet store.
The horror of the situation grows more overt as the party goes on, but that there’s something going on here becomes clear the night previous. Missy interrupts Chris on his way back in from a cigarette, and their ensuing conversation leaves him rattled. Peele doesn’t back away from the fact that this family is not what they seem, a wise choice given how much eventual insanity he has to uncover. How many people are in on the situation is one of the few questions that persist, along with what precisely happens to the black people unfortunate enough to end up in this town. They all wear plastic smiles and speak as if they’re learning the English language through an earpiece and speaking for the first time out loud. In particular, who was Andrew King (Atlanta’s great Keith Stanfield), who gives the film its title after a camera flash sends him into a spiral?
Photography plays a large role in Get Out; it’s Chris’ profession, his work appreciated by an art dealer in the suburb (played by Stephen Root). But even the camera phone, artless as it can be, illuminates here. So much of Key & Peele, and the underrated John Wick riff Keanu, had to do with the notion of code switching. Specifically, Peele’s past work has looked at how black people must often readjust their behaviors around different groups of people, often other people of color. Those notions are still played for laughs at times; but they’re also turned into more a desperate roar when consent is taken away from the equation. These white people don’t believe that they hate black people; in fact we learn that they (physically) admire them. But maybe it would be best if they could act a bit more in line with everybody else, or just keep quiet. Through that lens, photography becomes a way in which the spirit of the black individual can be captured and recognized.
Get Out’s thoughts on race certainly aren’t new, but Peele hasn’t set out to write an academic paper. Instead, what makes the film great is its ability to stuff these tough truths into a thrilling gunshot of a film, propulsive from beginning to end. Part of this stems from the unraveling mystery, with Chris and his friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery) communicating over the phone to put certain pieces together. The script does a magnificent job of doling out the dramatic irony only in slivers; we’re ahead of the characters as often as we’re right alongside them. That works to throw the audience off-balance, unable to fully trust perspective, and solving things right before Peele tells us himself.
Some of the thrill comes from Peele’s unbelievable adeptness at creating the cold shiver of horror. He ties in emotional elements, pulls out the occasional jump scare, bleeds through glimpses of gore and mashes all of these together with deftness usually reserved for old pros. The third act is one for the ages, a morass of sheer terror that knows exactly how often to keep pulling out another foe. Peele also has a real gift in Kaluuya, great in Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits” and 2015’s Sicario. He’s able to bring humanity to his roles so quickly, which connects him to viewers here. There’s true fear partially imbedded in wanting this particular person to escape this particular event, even if that feeling is wrapped up in the larger catharsis of a black man escaping the leering evil of a racist white town.
And then, of course, there’s the way that Peele is able to wrap up the comedy alongside that horror. Usually, combinations of the two genres will either separate the scares and the jokes, or they exaggerate the terror for the sake of the comedy. Few have taken this precise equation that Peele nearly masters here. Take, for instance, a late-night scene where Chris goes out to have a cigarette behind the house. After him comes a man running full sprint, deviating at only the last second. The moment is both scary and a bit absurd; Peele sees no reason to differentiate between the two at the time. That doesn’t mean that nothing here is solely one thing or another. Certain sequences are chilling without the forgiveness of laughs. On the other hand, Rod is mostly around to get howls of joy from the audience. (And thanks to Lil Rey’s charismatic bewilderment, this is successful. This guy has about two minutes left until he’s a massive star.)
For much of the time, however, Get Out doesn’t bother drawing lines between the horror, the satire and the bawdier comedy. Peele’s cocktail of modes doesn’t always pay off, growing a bit tired just before he busts up the algorithm (and everything else) in the third act. But for the most part he’s found a way to pull out the most successful threads of each of these genres. Make no mistake; despite Peele’s background this is not a “take” on a horror film. There is a clear commitment to the style, symmetry used throughout to highlight when the balance begins to tilt. He also injects the visuals with swaths of blackness, shrouding flashbacks and trapping falling bodies. By knowing when to play it straight and when to inject his more familiar humorous side, threading racial tension throughout it all, Jordan Peele has made one of the year’s best debut films. And the fact that Get Out is such a bold experiment and a wild crowd-pleaser at once means there’s no real need for that qualifier “debut”.