A movie about an African-American boyfriend visiting his white girlfriend’s family home sounds like a hackneyed drama about race relations in America. But Get Out is no Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The movie twists the cliched setup into a sharp horror-comedy … that is also an allegory about race relations in America.
You know all the terrible things that happen in scary movies, even if you aren’t a fan of the genre. “Tropes” is just trendy shorthand for the long menu of commonly used situations in film and TV, everything from “don’t go down to the root cellar” to “zombies will eat your braaains” and “the virgin dies last.”
Writer-director Jordan Peele (of Key and Peele) knows you know those tropes, and Get Out spends about an hour and a half keeping you riveted as you wonder how many of those terrible things will happen to which characters and when. Expert timing and the judicious use of horror build, defuse, and rebuild the suspense.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is worried because his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), has neglected to tell her white family that her new boyfriend is African-American. After all, it’s “post-racial” 2017, why does it matter? Chris knows it does matter, and his discomfort deepens as they arrive at the remote family home … on a lake in the middle of the woods. Moment by moment, he questions — and so do we — whether it’s simply an awkward situation, or if something more sinister is afoot.
But he’s fairly chill about dealing with the Armitages: Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), a psychiatrist who specializes in hypnotherapy; her dad, Dean (Bradley Whitford), a celebrated neurosurgeon who hammers home the dad jokes; and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), an unexpectedly aggressive drunk asshole.
Chris shares his anxiety by texting his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a jovial guy who likes to remind everyone that he works for the TSA. Unfortunately, Rod spins ludicrous paranoiac theories that don’t calm Chris one bit.
Portent-with-a-capital-P consistently drives the suspense in Get Out. The first half is crammed with portent. Every scene includes an image or a line of dialogue that might pay off later. When Dean tells Chris, “We have the basement closed off … black mold,” you immediately imagine numerous frightening basement-related possibilities. Dean later observes that his house has no near neighbors, just woods and a lake, and you recall every possible cabin-in-the-woods scenario, none of which end well.
But you don’t know how these ominous elements will surprise you as the film progresses … if at all. The filmmaker could be toying with you. He could be trying to tell you something, too.
The creepy, over-the-top dialogue and characters serve another purpose. They put the audience in Chris’s shoes, to help even the most privileged viewer feel the wariness this young black guy is experiencing in a house full of people who not only aren’t like him, but who could eventually try to harm him. People who automatically change their words and their actions around him because of the color of his skin.
The typical horror framework of Get Out pays off beautifully, not just in entertainment value but in thought-provoking messages about contemporary racial problems. I could write an essay on that theme alone, but I’d spoil the ending.
Occasionally the metaphors are a little too obvious, such as the ridiculous character portrayed by Stephen Root — but we often expect Root’s roles to be a little goofy, so it works. Rose’s brother Jeremy is slightly too cartoonish in his drunken unpredictability. And when you put Bradley Whitford in a film like this, people will immediately think of The Cabin in the Woods, but again, this is to the movie’s advantage.
I get squeamish about gory movies, but I only had to peek through my fingers a couple of times during Get Out. Some of the more graphically violent moments are partially hidden from view or cast in shadow, which I find more intense and effective than a visceral depiction of blood and gore.
Get Out is a fine horror film … and the horror in it isn’t merely the fault of a few random evildoers. Artfully, humorously, without the sledgehammer many “message movies” use, we see that real evils are far deeper and more pervasive. It’s not only for fans of the genre.
Jette Kernion lives in the creepy, isolated village of Austin, Texas.