Written by Daniel Simpson
What’s the deal with comedians directing horror movies lately? Kevin Smith, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Joe Swanberg have all dipped their toes in the water, and the team of David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are in charge of the next Halloween film. Of course, there hasn’t really been enough for this to be considered a movement and the results have not exactly been promising. Obviously, we don’t know how Halloween will turn out, but these other horror efforts have not been impressive. Red State has some defenders, but Smith’s subsequent follow-ups are seen as the low-points of his cinematic career and Goldthwait’s Willow Creek was largely panned. The newest filmmaker in this trend is Jordan Peele, best known for sketch comedy show “Key and Peele”, whose racially conscious horror film Get Out has broke box-office records and has received rave reviews.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young black man living in New York City dating white woman Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). The two are heading to Rose’s parents’ house in the country for the weekend, a prospect which is worrisome for Chris given that Rose has not told her parents that her boyfriend is black. Upon arrival, Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) seem like liberal leaning and progressively minded whites, though ones not above dropping occasionally condescending comments like clarifying they would have voted for Obama for a third time. There are other such micro-aggressions, but things really start to go awry when Chris suspects something more sinister may in fact be at play. These suspicions are prompted by the Armitage’s black servants, a groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and a maid (Betty Gabriel), who both seem a little…off.
Essentially, Get Out must be analyzed on two levels, as a horror film and as social commentary. As a horror film, Peele’s execution is mixed. On the one hand, the first-time director is able to come up with some creative horror visuals and the third act set-pieces work okay. I particularly liked “the sunken place”, which is frightening in concept and visually well-realized. However, I think Peele is a bit too eager to dive right into horror rather than a slower build. It doesn’t take long for the groundskeeper and maid to start acting ridiculously creepy and the film also embraces jump scares (complete with high-string music) early on. The problem is the film tries to navigate from that back to the more gradual suspense brought on by the micro-aggressions and the increasing tension coming from Chris’ interactions with the family. It doesn’t work because the audience is being pulled between rising tension and overt terror. Compare this to The Stepford Films (a clear reference point for Peele), which spends a lot of time slowly building tension as the protagonist investigates the strangeness of the neighborhood. That film doesn’t embrace full-on horror until the third act, but the build-up makes it all the more powerful. I can see why such an approach might be considered “too slow” for modern standards, but had the film just hid the more overt scares from Chris while still giving hints to the audience it would have been more effective.
It’s unfortunate the film leaps so quickly into jump scare territory since the rising tension actually works quite well. Peele does a very good job putting the audience in Chris’ shoes and Daniel Kaluuya makes for a likable protagonist. Furthermore, the micro-aggressions and subtle racism on display is well-realized. From certain comments the parents make, to the condescending tone of the father, to some of the asinine comments and questions Chris has to humour at a family party. It all feels authentic and it’s also a peak into a type of racism seldom depicted on film. Where most movies focus on more overt bigots, Peele is taking a look at the subtler racism which stems from people who wouldn’t likely identify themselves as racist…at least that’s what it seems like.
Of course, the film does turn everything on its head in the third act. I’m gonna jump into spoilers for a bit, so I’d recommend skipping to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen Get Out yet. Any who…it’s eventually revealed that the central family has actually been abducting black people and transplanting the brains of rich white people into the bodies. That’s certainly an interesting turn, one that maybe seems a little removed from the restrained racism Peele was previously examining, but it does perhaps make a statement about how, for some, acting progressive is actually a self-gratifying front. I can get on board with that, though I do think this twist has narrative problems. Namely, if this family is all about abducting blacks and lulling them into a false sense of security, then why would they deliberately create an environment that would be hostile and uncomfortable for a black man? If it were me, I’d make sure shit was as welcoming as possible, and I sure as shit wouldn’t allow Rose’s crazy ass brother to antagonize Chris. You’d think a family that had committed this sort of crime many times over what have a tighter system. Why do they allow the clearly messed up black zombie types to lumber around and create suspicion? In fact, why do the groundskeeper and maid behave the way they do? It’s later revealed that the brains of the grandparents have taken over these bodies and they seem perfectly in control during the climax? So why couldn’t they keep their shit together, or at the very least fuck off until Chris had been brainwashed? I get why all of these things are in the movie cinematically, but the narrative doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Another problem this third act has is that, while it is technically when the movie is supposed to be at it’s most horrific, it’s also when the film most embraces comedy. Early in the film Chris’ friend Rodney (Lil Rel Howery) is introduced in a seemingly small comedic relief role, but he becomes a major player in the third act and his scenes are dominated by a comedic tone. Now, Howery is genuinely funny in these scenes, but it clashes with the terror and threat that the audience should be experiencing.
There is a lot that I think could be improved about Get Out and as a horror film in particular it isn’t especially effective. And yet overall my thoughts do lean towards the positive, in large part due to the film’s thematic and intellectual goals. All too often, modern horror is just based around having things go boo and giving the audience an effective but fleeting jump. Not only does Get Out explore a more unique type of fear, but it is also interested in exploring important social issues and while its execution isn’t exactly perfect Peele still seems to have gotten a conversation going. In short, it’s a film that actually feels like it has a perspective and that goes a long way.