The tree-lined suburban street in the opening scene of Jordan Peele’s Get Out is not, on its face, threatening. But there’s something about the way Peele shoots it – the prowling movements of his camera, the dread loaded into the music – that renders it sinister before the young black man even enters the frame. “Feel like a sore thumb out here,” muses the character, and he’s not wrong. From those first moments, Get Out frames its bold thesis with clarity and without apology: on a street like this, all alone, in the middle of the night, a person of color may as well be a babysitter in a scary movie. Peele’s film, which mixes horror, comedy, and social commentary with astonishing confidence and skill, takes hold of this provocative idea and sees it all the way through. Needless to say, at this particular socio-political moment, it shakes the theater like an earthquake.
Daniel Kaluuya (so good as Emily Blunt’s partner in Sicario) stars as Chris Washington, a nice-guy photographer from Brooklyn. One of the film’s sharper yet unspoken touches is that, from what we see, his photos are portraits of rough, inner-city life (“The images you capture, so brutal, so melancholic”), but that’s not where or how he lives; he’s a buppie/hipster, living in a world where, it seems, you can let your guard down. Part of that world is his hip, white girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams), who is taking him out to the country for the weekend to meet her parents for the first time. He’s nervous about it. “I don’t wanna get chased off the lawn with a shotgun,” he jokes. Ha ha ha.
The first hint that Get Out has more on its mind than laughs or scares comes during their road trip, in the little symphony of social responses and norms loaded into Chris and Rose’s interaction with a state trooper who wants to see Chris’s ID – in how each of them reacts, and what each is allowed/expected to say. That undercurrent continues through the meeting of the parents (a strained dialogue under the best of circumstances); her dad (Bradley Whitford) is all smiles and hugs and “m’man”s, clumsily volunteering that “I would’ve voted Obama for a third term,” while mom (Catherine Keener) puts up a façade of kindness and warmth. But something is off, beyond the usual tension and barely hidden hostilities of getting-to-know-you dinners. (Speaking of awkward family dinners: I wonder how things are going with the kinfolk of Peele’s wife, Chelsea Peretti.)
Afterwards, she’s shocked by her family’s micro-aggressions, but he shrugs them off. It’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, and dealt with. And that’s part of the peculiar genius of Peele’s screenplay – in your typical horror movie, there are all sorts of red flags that should warn our heroes of the dangers ahead, and the manner in which they ignore them is maddening. Here, most of the tip-offs are byproducts of merely being a black man in America (and thus, when Peele revisits them once the endgame has been made clear, they’re chilling rather than ignorant). He intermingles the language of horror and social drama so deftly that when Chris steps out in the middle of the night for a smoke, it seems as blaringly bad an idea as teens splitting up at Camp Crystal Lake.
Considering Peele’s background, it’s unsurprising that Get Out is so funny; what’s remarkable is how the comic beats (in the form of murmured reactive dialogue, character humor, and the outright comic relief provided by the hysterical Lil Rel Howery) don’t cause the tension to slack. This is, without exaggeration, one of the most astonishingly assured directorial debuts in recent memory; Peele juggles tones, orchestrates elements, and coaxes grounded performances with the skill of an old pro. There’s a scene around the midpoint of an impromptu therapy session where Peele (and Kaluuya and Keener) has so much happening at once, dramatically and cinematically, that it’s sort of staggering. This is bold, audacious, risky stuff.
The tightrope that Peele manages to walk, for as long as possible, is to leave open the question of what exactly is going on here (besides the obvious). In fact, if there’s a complaint to lodge against Get Out, it’s that it’s one of those movies where the secret itself is a bit of a letdown; it’s a payoff that can’t quite match the unnerving build-up. But when that shoe finally drops, it’s legitimately terrifying — because nothing we’ve seen until that point has been supernatural, or even particularly inconceivable.
Few things on the earth are easier than proclaiming Get Out the “horror film for Trump’s America,” a temptation I’ll resist because a) a million other writers will do it, and b) I wrote that piece a year ago, about another movie. But there’s no denying that this film plays differently than it would have if things had gone the other way in November, now that we’ve got a President who doesn’t consider white people capable of terrorism, and an attorney general who was deemed too racist to be a judge in the oh-so-woke year of 1986. It’s a scary moment in this country, and Get Out is a scary movie that’s right on time.
“Get Out” is out tomorrow.