Acclaimed horror film Get Out might be one of the most paranoid and cerebral mainstream movies ever made
I was out of country when the press screenings of Jordan Peele’s Get Out went down and therefore missed them and, upon my return, was simply too busy with other things to get myself out to the multiplex to see it. I read all the words, however. Absorbed all the praise. Adored the trailer. Skimmed the interviews and was smacked around by the social network adoration. I knew what sort of evolved, perhaps even semi-revolutionary, piece of progressive genre entertainment I was in for. And I was excited. This wasn’t going to be another rote, jump-scare-soaked wallow in tired cliche and date night hormone-surge horror film. This felt exciting. Even the poster, with it’s grinning rom-com collage of smiling people juxtaposed with a crying man and bullet hole through the screen, felt alien and new and angry and interesting.
But what I wasn’t prepared for was how profoundly powerful the film would be in making me complicit. In creating a world so familiar yet threatening and giving me a protagonist to follow who is so masterfully, meticulously constructed that we love him and care about him almost immediately. And, unlike so many contemporary horror movies that aim low, Get Out manages to function as both a simple spooky thriller and primal social scream without cancelling itself out. It’s really rather brilliant.
Now, watch out because from here on in, there will be plenty of spoilers. So turn back now if you have yet to see the film.
The trailer sets up the story. A young African American man and burgeoning photographer named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) follows his pretty, sweet white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her affluent parents, who reside in a secluded suburban mansion, hours outside of town. When we meet Chris, he’s staring in the mirror in his spacious apartment. We see his soulful eyes (Kaluuya has incredible eyes that are the film’s best special effect) looking back at him and he seems…worried. We see his living space, tastefully decorated with art and his own work adorning the walls. We see the love he has for his dog. We like this young man. And when we meet his girlfriend, it’s clear how much he loves her, despite his nerves about being whisked away to a place he’s never been to be judged by people he’s never met. Chris trusts Rose. What he’s not so sure about are the people who birthed her. Without laying heavy on anger or citing any incident. Peele deftly paints a portrait of a man who has had to swim upstream against a very milky current, who has had his share of battles to sculpt the life he’s wanted and who has had to prove himself, needlessly, time and time again. As seen through the haunted eyes of Kaluuya, these early moments are quietly devastating, really.
But Rose has his back. When the pair hit a deer en route to her parents, they call the police and the officer demands to see Chris’ ID, despite the fact that he wasn’t driving the car. Accustomed to this sort of treatment, Chris reaches for his wallet but Rose protests, standing her ground against the cop, despite her boyfriends casual insistence that it’s “okay”.
Chris is thrilled that his lady is there for him. But we aren’t so sure. There’s a feeling of…I’m not sure how to quite articulate it…a feeling of ownership here. That Rose isn’t defending her man rather she’s using the incident to prove just how socially aware she is. That’s she’s getting off on the drama and in fact amplifying it. It feels...off.
Of course it is off. And it gets off-er as it goes.
When the pair arrive, they meet Rose’s parents; grinning hippie therapist Catherine (the great Catherine Keener, never more sinister) and the steel jawed, leering Dean (Bradley Whitford) who welcome Chris with open arms to their home. But almost instantly Chris’ inner alarm sounds. The “help” – maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) – are black and are in effect vacant, grinning savants. Dad takes Chris on “the tour” and stops at a photo of his father who ran and lost against Jesse Owens in Berlin while Hitler watched and never recovered from the defeat. Therein lies the dark secret of Get Out. The nucleus of its hatred and it illustrates how racism grows, like a cancer, through generations. It comes from failure. It comes from a need to control something that one deems lesser than ones self. Though Dean treats the anecdote as just that, a passing comment, Chris feels the prick of the needle and he knows right then and there that’s he’s crossed over into the belly of the alabaster beast.
In an interview with Motherjones.com, Peele said, in reference to a comment made about society being the scariest thing of all:
“When people get to together, we’re capable of the most beautiful, amazing things. But we are also capable of genocide. We can convince ourselves to do things in conjunction with one another that we wouldn’t have been able to do as an individual. How we act with each other really reveals our most animal instincts.”
And so it is in the film, as the family welcomes an army of black cars to the home for their annual “gathering” and hordes of impossibly affluent older white people emerge. Chris becomes more and more amused, then genuinely alarmed, at the swarm of leering human beings sizing him up. These parasitic people come to him cheerfully, touching him, asking about his Golf game, while dropping references to “token” black celebrities and patting themselves on the back for their hollow observations. And while Chris is fully aware of the surreal new world he’s quite literally trapped in, he is powerless to exit. Remember, he didn’t drive the car and he willingly, trustingly followed his girlfriend into the middle of nowhere with only his endlessly discharged cell phone connecting him to the outside world, specifically to his hapless best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery, adding broad but sharp and essential comic relief). His only hope of surviving this weekend from white hell is to treat it as a fascinating social experiment.
But then the cracks start to pop. A black guest in a catatonic state similar to that of the help, breaks his spell when a flash bulb goes off in his face and his nose bleeds and he screams at Chris to “Get Out! Get Out!”. From that point on, the darkly satirical and increasingly paranoid drama becomes a horror movie. Full blown. Merciless but never, ever gratuitous.
Chris learns that his coming and the timing of “the gathering” is by design and that these wealthy rich pricks are in fact a sect of social vampires, preying on primarily black youth in order to “become” them. Lovely Rose is the bait that lures them in and Mom and Dad (and Grandpa, who is not nearly as dead as Dean claims) are the architects of a sort of scientifically satanic process to dehumanize and control their ebony prey.
And though the blind art dealer (a bit that reminded me of the old Dave Chappelle skit about the blind, black white supremacist) claims that race is not important to him in this mission, that he likes Chris’ photography and simply “wants his eyes”, that might be the most vulgar indictment in the entire film. That someone who claims to be indifferent to race goes along with this “genocide” in order to reap its professional benefits. And what of Rose, the monstrous woman who uses love and sex to play her part in her family’s barbaric dynasty? Is she a victim? Or is she like the countless other young people who exploit the lives of minorities in order to indulge their own fantasies of being loving and liberal? As Chris is subjected to torture in the family’s basement, Rose now chillingly surfs the net, googling black men and women both common and famous with a look in her eye that’s cold and insect-like, the gallery of selfies hanging on her wall showing her smiling with her litany of victims. It’s scary stuff.
When the lights went up on Get Out, I was shaken. I exited the theater and while my friend used the facilities, I leaned against a wall and tried to re-acclimatize myself to the “real world”. I was disoriented and fearful. And suddenly, people began spilling out into the halls from another film. They were older, predominantly white men and women. And they were staring at me. Or were they? For a few minutes I forgot who I was. I wasn’t Chris Alexander, the writer of this article, I was Chris Washington. I suddenly felt a deep sense of mistrust. I felt like “the other” hiding in a hostile environment that was hiding in a kind of gauzy mask.
I was at that moment, briefly, profoundly alone and afraid.
And that’s no way to live. And I think that’s the point of Get Out, really. That we can pretend that racism and hatred are either eradicated or pushed to the fringes of the world, that here in “polite society” such ancient demons could never exist.
But they do. And the more we deny their existence the more powerful they become. Get Out teaches us to be ever-vigilant and aware and that’s not being paranoid, that’s just sad, bitter common sense.