Thursday, March 2, 2017
Get Out: The Stepford Jives
OK, I’m exaggerating. But Get Out, the first feature by comedian Jordan Peele, is more than just another fright flick. It’s a film that examines, with insight, empathy, and anger, the challenge of being a black man in white America. Peele is not exclusively interested in making you jump out of your seat (though he proves plenty good at that). He also wants to clamp you to your chair and make you grapple with the current state of race relations in this country, to wrestle with his characters’ prejudices and maybe even your own.
The aforementioned, much-tormented protagonist of Get Out is Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya, star of my favorite Black Mirror episode), and if you ignore the movie’s chilling prologue—in which a black man is abducted by a masked figure on a darkened suburban street—its opening act could pass for a remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? A city-dweller, Chris is headed to the heavily wooded country (perhaps intentionally, the movie is vague about its location—filming took place in Alabama), along with his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams, forever Marnie). She’s introducing him to her parents, a prosperous couple who live in one of those daunting estates with a long, winding drive and a perfectly manicured lawn that seems to stretch on for acres.
The Cabin in the Woods), and her psychiatrist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener, forever awesome). Yet despite everyone’s warmest intentions, the dynamics are a bit strained; for a time, Get Out functions as an awkward comedy of manners, with its characters either visibly dancing around the fact of Chris’ race or painfully attempting to confront it. As Dean acknowledges, the mansion’s optics are regrettable, given that the lily-white Armitages employ two black servants: a housekeeper, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), and a groundskeeper, Walter (Marcus Henderson). And when guests arrive for the Armitages’ annual get-together, their behavior is of questionable taste—an elderly golf fan ensures Chris that he admires Tiger Woods, while a woman enviously clutches at his biceps. Even Rose’s booze-swilling brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), can’t resist remarking on Chris’ genetic makeup during dinner.
If Get Out were a pure cringe comedy, one could perhaps accuse Peele of reductionism, of lazily tarring each of his white characters with the same brush of bigoted ignorance. As it turns out, however, this blanket crudity is the movie’s very point. The supporting players of Get Out are not people but symbols, proxies for a discriminatory society that perceives black men entirely by their skin color, prizing them not for their intellect or their personhood but for their physical attributes. (A scene where somebody Googles “top NCAA prospects” is a brilliant encapsulation of the characters’ myopia.) And as Peele gradually nudges the film deeper and deeper into horror territory, the implications of his allegory take on a darker and more disturbing dimension. To reveal too much would be to spoil the ingenuity of Peele’s screenplay, but suffice it to say that appealing to Rose’s parents is the least of Chris’ problems. He is in fact a target, a slab of prey in a hunt conducted by covetous white predators.
Still, it’s a damn good horror movie, one that showcases Peele’s talent as a filmmaker as well as a provocateur. That prologue is a corker of a cold open, the camera smoothly tracking its subject and silently heightening your dread. Peele also builds suspense in observing the aberrant behavior of the servants, whose stilted personae—Georgina has a penchant for staring blankly into space, while Walter’s exercise routine is decidedly unorthodox—suggest that they’ve been lifted straight out of The Stepford Wives. Most importantly, Peele recognizes the value of patience, understanding that he doesn’t need to pile on the gore or the shocks to arrest your attention. The film’s best scene is a seemingly gentle tête-à-tête between Chris and Missy, where the latter, using nothing more than a dulcet tone of voice and a teacup, quietly bends the former to her will.
At one point in Get Out, Missy soothingly commands Chris to “sink into the floor”, the punctuation to an impromptu hypnotism. What happens next is astonishing, both narratively and visually. And even if Peele can’t sustain that level of brilliance for the film’s entire run time, he repeatedly exhibits virtuoso flourishes that mark him as a truly gifted director. As a white man, I can’t pretend to fully appreciate Chris’ predicament. But I can assure you that, over the course of this smart and bracing movie, he wasn’t the only one hypnotized.