Sometimes politics creeps into horror movies by chance. George Romero, for instance, has said he hired African-American actor Duane Jones as the lead in Night of the Living Dead not because of his race but because he was the best actor. That would make the film’s finale, with its images echoing a lynch mob, and all the heated conversations Jones’ protagonist has with the white characters who doubt him resonant accidents. But sometimes horror is political by design. Wes Craven patterning the inner city-exploiting villains of The People Under the Stairs after Ronald and Nancy Reagan, for instance, was clearly a conscious choice.
From its first scene, Get Out signals it belongs in the latter category. As the film opens, a black man walks down a suburban street talking on his cell phone and minding his own business. The image alone creates a sense of dread even before a car starts to tail him and a masked figure emerges to take him down. He’s done nothing wrong except being the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time. The danger is real even if his offense is not.
It’s a bracing start to a movie that then shifts to become a tense, slow burning film of escalating tension. Daniel Kaluuya (Skins, Black Mirror) stars as Chris, an up-and-coming New York photographer who’s visibly nervous as he prepares for a trip upstate to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Rose is full of reassurances that he’ll be welcome. Her family, after all, couldn’t be more liberal. Her mother Missy (Catherine Keener) works as a psychiatrist helping others all day and her father Dean (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama three times if he could and will probably tell Chris that himself. He does, with a smile on his face to drive his enthusiasm home. But that doesn’t mean their visit will be a safe one for Chris.
Get Out is the writing and directing debut of Jordan Peele, one half of the team behind the great sketch comedy series Key and Peele. It’s also his first major project since the series ended and he collaborated with Keegan-Michael Key on last year’s future-cult-classic comedy Keanu. It sounds like a departure from his past work, and in many ways it is. Though Peele deploys humor throughout the film — Lil Rel Howery has a scene-stealing role as Chris’ friend who warns him against taking the trip — Get Out is a smart and unsparing horror movie to the bone.
Rose’s parents go out of their way to make Chris feel welcome. In fact, they go way too far out of their way, turning every conversation back to race and quickly providing reassurances that they see the world as he does. But they can’t and don’t, and what Chris at first wants to write off as good intentions gone awry starts to take on a more sinister cast as his stay progresses. What’s the deal with Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), the couple’s African-American servants who treat him with a mix of distance and hostility? Did Rose really forget that this is the weekend her parents rich friends gather for a get-together? And why is Missy so insistent that he undergo hypnotherapy to stop him from smoking?
Other elements feels off, too: Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones, in the film’s creepiest performance) talks about how Chris’ genetic make-up would make him a great MMA fighter. Some of their friends talk about how beauty standards have shifted from pale skin to darker hues over the centuries. Even if they meant well, they would still sound insulting. But they don’t mean well as Chris discovers a touch too late. Peele cleverly uses the heightened environment to portray how unchecked white privilege can be just as destructive as more overt forms of racism and, without giving too much away, he goes all the way with that idea. Early in the film Dean shares a souvenir from Bali with Chris and talks about his love of collecting from other cultures, a bit of foreshadowing that becomes more sinister as the plot progresses.
It’s a horror movie in which virtually every element works, starting with Kaluuya’s subtle performance. Chris has had a lifetime of learning when to keep his mouth shut around white people — well-meaning and otherwise — but his visit puts that skill to its ultimate test. By contrast, Whitford and Keener have a lot of fun sending up DNC-donating New Yorker subscribers quick to espouse liberal pieties that don’t challenge the way they live their lives.
But the real revelation here is Peele. That he brings a sharp sensibility to his debut film, even one outside the genre that made him famous, should probably have been unexpected. That he brings the technical skill of a practiced horror master is more of a surprise. The final thrill of Get Out — beyond the slow-building sense of danger, the unsettling atmosphere, and the twisty revelation of what’s really going on — is that Peele’s just getting started.