Historically, horror movies have not been a black thing. This is probably because, as many people before me have pointed out, real life for black people in the America of slavery and lynching and George Zimmerman and now Donald Trump has been terrifying enough. How do you make something as frivolous as a horror flick out of that without trivializing things? Amazingly, Get Out has managed it, which is one reason why it’s an early candidate for my list of the top 10 movies of 2017.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris, a successful big-city photographer with a beautiful loft home and a beautiful white girlfriend named Rose (Allison Williams), though he hasn’t lost touch with his childhood friends like Rod (Lil Rel Howery from The Carmichael Show), a TSA cop with a weakness for conspiracy theories. When the movie opens, Chris is apprehensive about traveling to meet Rose’s family, especially because she hasn’t mentioned his race to them. His apprehension only grows once he sees them in their well-manicured suburban enclave. He notes that not only is her family behaving way too chummily, but the few black people in this community are acting weird, too. They all seem to be employed as domestics, and they’re so happy about being there that they come off as a bit crazed. As Chris tells Rod on the phone, “It’s like they missed the movement.”
This is the directing debut for Jordan Peele, half of the comedy team of Key & Peele, which did such hilarious work skewering white racism on their now-defunct TV show. Peele shoots this thing in bright sunlight to make the movie look like the relationship comedy that this starts out as. In this setting, the director starts to skillfully pile up creepy details like a noisy cocktail party that falls silent as soon as Chris leaves the room, or a mounted deer head that hearkens back to an earlier scene when Rose’s car hits a deer — when the head appears, you don’t know what it means, but it’s probably nothing good. Gore Verbinski did something similar in A Cure for Wellness, but unlike him, Peele knows how to make this stuff pay off: Chris’ job as a photographer comes into play in an unexpected way, as does his nervous habit of scratching the armrests of his chair, and a late monologue about his mother reveals why Chris is so emotionally affected by the death of the deer early on. These callbacks are clever in themselves, but they also help tie the movie together.
Peele also gets fantastic performances from his cast. Bradley Whitford dominates the early going as Rose’s lame dad and seems to overshadow Catherine Keener as Rose’s mom, but she reveals sinister depths in a scene when she puts Chris under hypnosis, ostensibly to cure him of his smoking habit. Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson play the aforementioned domestics with the right mix of hostile, polite, and robotic, and LaKeith Stanfield (from Short Term 12 and TV’s Atlanta) crushes it again as an African-American being kept at that community who briefly comes to himself and delivers the warning in the title to Chris. As for Williams, I’ll just say that if you’ve only watched her on TV’s Girls, you’ll come out of this seeing her in a new light. It takes presence not to get lost amid all of this, and Kaluuya (a British newcomer who played Emily Blunt’s FBI partner in Sicario) does solid work in the lead role.
One might expect Get Out to be set amid faux-enlightened Southern whites whose racism bubbles just underneath the surface, but instead, it’s set among Northeastern liberals, which gives the movie a whole other type of sting. (It was filmed in Alabama. They must have had a good laugh about that on the set.) When Rose’s dad tells Chris that he’d have gladly voted for Obama’s third term, he genuinely means it, saying, “Best president of my lifetime,” a compliment that resonates deeper than it appears. Amid all the microaggressions and clueless references to how much they love Tiger Woods, these white people express empathy for Chris at every turn, and yet none of it stops them from trying to inflict a fate worse than death on him. The specifics of why Chris has been chosen for that fate are terrifying, too. Peele’s flair for the genre helps bring home the fears that come with being African-Americans in a racist society to a non-black audience, as in the opening scene with Stanfield when the clean, leafy suburb he’s walking through reveals its menace (“You know how they like to do motherfuckers out here,” he mumbles to himself), or a late one when Chris looks to be the latest unarmed black man to be shot by an overzealous white cop. Precisely because it addresses fears that have been absent from horror movies, Get Out is a future classic.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R.