First time feature film writer-director Jordan Peele hails from a television background. His insanely popular sketch show with fellow comic Keegan-Michael Key (called, unsurprisingly, ‘Key & Peele’) flooded the web with viral sketches between 2012 and 2015, often taking a sharp look at race in contemporary America, often skewering or leaning into stereotypes, or addressing racism both unspoken and overt. With his first solo film, Peele has taken their shared fixation to another level. Utilising the horror-thriller genre to structure his critique, Peele takes the finest scalpel to the notion of a ‘post-racial’ America and ends up with one of the most satisfying and odd debuts in recent memory.
A black man (Lakeith Stanfield) walks through a leafy suburb alone at night. A car begins to trail him, slowly, menacingly. There’s a natural fear that accompanies this set-up, but Peele’s understanding of the experience of black Americans laces it with additional terror – it’s the set-up of every random shooting that befalls so many African American youths. It’s enough to psych out the character, and he turns heel to throw off his tail. However, it’s too little too late, and a figure clad in dark leather and sporting a medieval-looking helmet attacks him, choking him out before dragging his unconscious body back to the waiting car.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), another young black guy and a skilled urban photographer, is planning a weekend trip to meet the family of his white girlfriend, Rose (Alison Williams). Chris asks Rose if they are aware that he is black. She assures him that there is nothing to worry about, that they are the furthest thing from racist – in fact, her Dad would have voted to give Obama a third term if he were able. This idea of a post-racial America doesn’t jibe with Chris’ friend, TSA agent Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who warns Chris against meeting the parents. When Rose’s SUV hits and kills a deer on the drive to her home, it’s an eerie omen that perhaps Rod was right.
From the start, the narrative is loaded with menace. Chris meets Rose’s Mum and Dad, psychiatrist Missy (Catherine Keener) and neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford), the latter of whom spits out a line about wishing he could have voted for Obama a third time within the first hour of meeting Chris. It feels too rehearsed, too liberal – Peele skilfully twists what could feel like a normal meet-and-greet into a knot of tension. They live in a large, tasteful country home with black help – gardener Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Chris’ first interactions with the pair are strained; their behaviour is polite and friendly to the point of caricature. Over iced tea, Missy mentions her practice of hypnosis to curing patients of smoking. Chris mentions this to Rod, whose mind immediately goes to the same place as the viewers’ – he suspects Missy’s hypnosis may have been used to enslave them. To add to the off-kilter feeling, Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives, and further pushes the post-racism idea by addressing race too openly – ‘With your frame and your genetic makeup, you could be a beast!’ he tells Chris.
That night, Chris goes outside for a cigarette, where he encounters Walter and Georgina acting more strangely still. He bumps into Missy on his way back into the house, where she effortlessly hypnotises him. I’m going to end my plot description at that mysterious cliff-hanger for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but I will mention that still to come are a superbly uncomfortable lawn party and an investigation into Chris’ whereabouts launched by Rod. The former sequence is a great blend of tension and comedy, as Chris’ suspicions are heightened by his interaction with the utterly insensitive guests – they tell him how fortunate he is to be black, that being black is “in” right now, and that they’re big fans of Tiger Woods. The scenes making up the latter storyline best exhibit Peele’s comedic background, and Lil Rey Howery is a very funny onscreen presence, delivering the scepticism and concerns of the audience with a hugely likable edge.
The rest of the cast are also effortlessly good. Bradley Whitford delivers his cringe-inspiring lines with the total confidence that only the white and financially comfortable could possibly muster. Catherine Keener is so calm on the surface, but has a hard edge running through her performance that she switches on when she needs to deliver a stern word. Alison Williams is an easy to buy love interest – she’s passionate and loving but very relaxed with her boyfriend and family. Daniel Kaluuya makes Chris both sympathetic in his actions and believably vulnerable. His performance when hypnotised alone completely sells the absolute terror of the lack of control that this entails. The cast has strong chemistry throughout, and their interactions help sell the story’s odder turns.
The final dozen or so shots include the arrival of flashing red and blue lights. I won’t say more, but it was at this moment, as I registered the gut punch of fear that I felt for a black character, that I realised how deeply Peele had immersed me in the black experience. That this stimulus inspired fear rather than relief is one of the most shocking twists that ‘Get Out’ musters. It’s creepy throughout, but a lot of the horror is rooted in its social commentary and a lot of the scares are almost camp in their deployment. It didn’t terrify me, but there are a couple of good jumps and the score, by composer Michael Abels, creates a dark atmosphere of looming threats, brilliantly aided by what sounds like a chanting African choir.
‘Get Out’ is a wildly enjoyable ride. It’s weird, it’s thrilling, it’s timely, and perhaps most importantly for a film that’s built as a mass appeal crowd pleaser, it’s entertaining from start to finish. Of course, its edge of bloody violence will narrow its audience somewhat, but its sermon about racism has a universal appeal. If you can stomach a little horror, then get out of your house and get into a cinema, because ‘Get Out’ is the most important film I’ve seen from a new American filmmaker this year.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting