Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root | Written and Directed by Jordan Peele
Blumhouse Productions is on something of a commercial and critical winning streak at the moment. Aside from providing a platform for Joel Edgerton’s excellent The Gift, it is supporting the unique voice of Ti West, and has become the home of M. Night Shyamalan’s best work in years. Get Out, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut (after co-writing 2016 comedy Keanu), shares something of the latter’s love for weird humour and genre-dodging thrills.
Skins and Black Mirror actor Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, the boyfriend of Rose (Allison Williams). She has convinced him to take a weekend in the country to visit her parents. Dean and Missy Armitage (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) are excruciatingly liberal and over-friendly from the moment they meet Chris. Dean insists he’d have voted Obama for a third term – and he also insists that the reasons for having a black gardener (Marcus Henderson) and a black maid (Betty Gabriel) are purely sentimental and entirely laudable.
But the servants are acting strangely. Almost zombie-like. When the local community gathers for a party at the Armitage mansion it becomes clear to Rose and Chris that beneath the smiles and conspicuously progressive comments lies something sinister: a very real possibility that the black members of the community are being controlled in some way by the white masters. With the help of Rod (Lil Rey Howery), a security guard friend at the end of the phone, Chris gradually uncovers the mystery of the missing persons in the area – and the signs suggest it’s not looking good for him.
Get Out is a smart and ruthless deconstruction of the state of racial tensions in the US today. This is no In the Heat of the Night, where the black man stands out like a sore thumb and is bashed until he’s sorer. Here, the creepiness builds in the subtlest ways, by means of positive discrimination, as the white locals remark upon Chris’s superior “genetic make-up”, or make flippant observations about black being “in fashion”. What’s scary is the idea that the Armitages and their friends truly aren’t aware of their prejudices. For them, genetic superiority is a question for intellectual debate, even while intellectual superiority is assumed.
A hierarchy of power is established from the very first moment we meet Rose and Chris. He is reluctant but Rose seductively insists. Instantly he is in a weakened position, pushing himself into an unwanted situation to satisfy her. On the way they’re stopped by the police. The cop asks for Chris’s ID, even though he wasn’t driving. He goes along with it, but Rose leaps to his defence. In her well-meaning way, she is purloining Chris’s autonomy – his right to choose his battles – and thus belittling him without even knowing it.
The film is full of tiny grey-area moments like this, which make us consider the power of every detail of our social interactions. The words “man” and “boy” have different connotations all of a sudden. Everything about the initial introduction of Chris into the Armitage family home is uncomfortable. Their dinner party is tinged with tension because we know everything isn’t quite right. It’s like Hitchcock’s ticking bomb, and Peele exploits our discomfort brilliantly. Peele isn’t simply throwing a fish onto dry land; he’s putting us in the shoes of someone whose gut feeling is almost certainly correct, thanks to a lifetime of social training.
The punitive social hierarchy is perhaps embodied by the mother, Missy Armitage. Played with terrifying precision by Keener, Missy is a hypnotist who identifies Chris’s weakness (smoking) and uses it as a way of getting him just where she wants him. The hypnotism scene is indeed hypnotic, as Missy finds Chris’s psychological scab and picks at it to weaken him. Emotionally stripped naked, Chris becomes defenceless against her bullying “therapy” and is finally under her control.
The performances are great across the board. As we discover the truth of Chris’s past, we understand why Kaluuya plays him this way: with those lost puppy eyes, and his apparent acceptance of life’s inevitable disappointment. Rose has arguably the widest range of emotions on show, and Williams nails the lot. The only doubt I have is over the character of Rod, who gets the Dick Halloran role of the concerned remote party – but is also comic relief. The comedy in these sequences I found a bit too broad compared with the truly eerie quality of the rest of the movie.
Get Out is a tremendous debut for its writer and director. There are overtones of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man in its sense of uncanny wrongness; of being out of one’s depth in a society which is both aggressively welcoming yet secretly hostile. Similarly, in its depiction of all-consuming upper middle class suburbanites, there are flashes of Brian Yuzna’s Society. Funny, nasty, silly, caustic and clever, Get Out can stand proudly alongside those memorably uneasy social horror classics.
Get Out is out in cinemas now.