In the opening moments of Get Out, as a mysterious, threatening figure stalks a wary black man who’s lost his way in a suburban neighborhood at night, writer-director Jordan Peele declares his intentions in two clear ways. First: he openly invokes the death of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old killed in a gated community by a man who assumed he was a criminal because of his skin color. Second: Peele lets the scene play out like a familiar horror movie sequence, complete with stabbing musical jump-cues, canny tension-building camera movement, and sudden, shocking action. Like the equally memorable opening scene of the recent horror movie It Follows, the initial moments of Get Out are a reminder that no matter how domestic and low-key the film becomes at other times, it’s first and foremost a horror movie, with an agenda of unsettling the audience, then scaring the hell out of them. But it’s also an overtly political movie, one that evokes current racial tensions both to make the story more relevant, and to make it more frightening.
Get Out is specific and pointed about white privilege and power and the inequities it creates, not just on a broad societal level, but in situations as small as social gatherings and casual conversations. There’s a lot of comic potential in the ideas Peele plays with here, in the possibility that any given racially tinged awkwardness between strangers might just be insensitivity, or might mask something much darker and more savage. But there’s a lot of paralyzing terror in that idea, too. For Peele’s protagonist, a talented black photographer named Chris Washington (played by Daniel Kaluuya, star of the standout Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits”), being able to tell the difference is literally a life-or-death proposition.
From the start, Peele uses racial tension to crank up the narrative tension. When Chris’ white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) invites him to meet her parents at their beautifully appointed, isolated lake house in a rich suburb, he hedges. She hasn’t told her parents he’s black, and he anticipates a potentially uncomfortable scene. But her folks, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), are welcoming and friendly. Dean is an awkwardly forceful would-be liberal ally — among other things, he claims he wanted to vote for Obama for a third term, and brags about what an honor it was when his father lost a potential Olympic competition slot to Jesse Owens. But otherwise, the entire Armitage family seems genial enough. Still, Chris is unnerved by the alternating aggression and beaming artificiality of the Armitages’ black housekeeper and groundskeeper, Walter and Georgina (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel, who deliver memorably eerie performances). As the family hosts an annual gathering, the aging white guests pile up the microaggressions, taking every opportunity to grope Chris’ muscles without asking, or to pointedly, proudly mention their admiration for Tiger Woods. And many more significant bizarre events leave Chris wondering whether something inimical is going on, or he’s just being paranoid.
Peele has a great deal of fun teasing the audience with that question, and riding the line between horror and humor. Chris periodically checks in with his black buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a comic-relief character who punctures the tension and lampshades Chris’ anxieties with rants suitable for a stand-up set. (“White people love making people sex slaves and shit!” he bellows at Chris. Then he launches into a speech about Jeffrey Dahmer’s fetishes that’s pure transgressive comedy.) But when Rod isn’t easing the strain, Peele jacks it up to nerve-wracking levels. The film’s title has a specific place in the narrative, but it’s also perfectly suited for a film where most viewers will be thinking “Get out of there!” at Chris as of about 15 minutes into the movie.
The plot ultimately owes a lot to a well-known 1970s thriller that can’t be named without spoiling Get Out’s most significant twists. But other paranoid thrillers come into play as well, from M. Night Shyamalan’s recent “something’s not right” thriller The Visit to the terrific original 1973 version of The Wicker Man, where a detective investigates a child’s disappearance while fatally misunderstanding the situation. Like the best conspiracy thrillers, Get Out piles up uncomfortable situations and unsettling images to keep the audience off base, but keeps the mysteries unraveling steadily almost until the final moments.
That’s part of what makes it such a strong debut: conspiracy movies usually fall apart in the final act, but as Get Out progresses, it keeps revealing new depths to Peele’s craft. The script is tremendously taut and thought-through, with minor details from the early going constantly revealing new significance. The cast is perfectly pitched and playing to their strengths, with Whitford and Keener in particular both making use of their ability to underline geniality with a hint of menace. In particular, Peele and Kaluuya make Chris a sympathetic and developed character, but they never lose track of his iconic status as a stand-in for every modern unarmed black motorist or pedestrian dealing with coded racism from the police, and wondering whether the situation is about to turn lethal. An early scene involving a policeman, whom Chris defers to and Rose defies, evokes white privilege and identity politics effectively enough to be excruciating. It’s one of many scenes that stands on its own — but it also has a meaningful part to play in the story.
It’s significant that Chris starts out as a passive, quiet, conflict-averse man who defers to white authority in every form. Peele has said that his target with Get Out was primarily the white liberal elite, the types who think President Obama’s election and their own open-mindedness have solved racism. And he’s unsparing in mocking them, in terms of making his antagonists not just ruthless, but laughable. Still, Peele spares a little side-eye for Chris, who’s willing to go along with anything to avoid causing trouble, and gets himself in trouble as a result. The entire film is about Chris coming to terms with his need to defend himself, to fight back, and to trust his instincts about who’s a threat, no matter how congenially they tell him that black skin is “in fashion” at the moment.
Like so much of Key & Peele’s comedy, Get Out is refreshing in its naked, frank aggression about confronting racial issues, with comedy, drama, and sharp, unsparing insight. The film isn’t subtle about how unhappy Chris is to be the only black person in a crowd, or how relieved he is to share his worries with a black friend. Peele doesn’t disguise the story’s application to current social fears about cultural appropriation and assimilation, or about prejudice, abuse of power, and the reckless, unchecked use of authority that produced casualties like Darrien Hunt, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. And by acknowledging the tension, he builds a platform to channel it all into tense, morbid terror. In the process, he creates one of the decade’s most openly meaningful horror films, and also one of its hands-down scariest.