It’s never a good sign when Catherine Keener is the scariest thing in your horror movie, but if “Get Out” isn’t half as scary as the ideas that inspired it, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is almost certain to be the boldest — and most important — studio genre release of the year. What it lacks in fear, it nearly makes up for in fearlessness.
When Hollywood wants to talk about race, it’s usually an inspirational film, set at some point in the past, that sparks discussion. It doesn’t matter if that setting is the 19th century, the civil rights movement, or even sometime last week; it’s any time that isn’t right this moment. Stories of injustice are always more comfortable being watched over your shoulder, so these films bring a wedge of distance so that (white) audiences don’t feel implicated in the on-screen suffering. “Get Out,” however, feels no such obligations. A broadly commercial horror comedy about a black guy trying to survive his first weekend with his white girlfriend’s family, it’s locked in the present, it’s about race, and — more than that — it’s about how it can’t not be about race.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams, enjoyably riffing on the whiteness of “Girls”) have been dating for almost five months, and it’s time to meet the parents. Chris has been an orphan since he was a kid, but Rose’s folks are alive and well. There’s just one problem, even if Rose doesn’t think it will be a problem: She hasn’t told her mom (Keener) and dad (Bradley Whitford) that her boyfriend is black. Chris suggests that she might want to give them a heads up, but Rose insists that she comes from a family of good liberals (“My dad would have voted for Obama for a third term!”).
And so off they go, driving through the woods on their way to the beautiful, secluded house that Rose’s parents own in the suburbs of wherever. Alas, trouble starts before they even get there, as their car slams into a deer, and the cop who comes the sceney can’t resist the temptation to give Chris a hard time. There isn’t a single scene that escapes racial tension — the story may go completely off the rails, but that detail keeps “Get Out” believable enough to backstop all of its twists.
Rose’s parents seem normal enough. Sure, they’re the whitest people alive, and their anxious attempts to ignore Chris’ race inevitably make it the elephant in the room, but, uh, at least her dad is self-aware about the optics of having an all-black staff? Besides, the eerily hostile groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and the unblinking maid (a scene-stealing Betty Gabriel) seem happy enough to be there — maybe a bit too happy, in fact.
It isn’t long before Chris starts to get creeped out. Rose’s lacrosse-playing brother is bad enough (Caleb Landry Jones plays the character like he was cut out of “Funny Games”), but he’s got nothing on her therapist mother, who ropes Chris into an involuntary hypnotism session that temporarily strands him in the darkest recesses of his own mind (how fitting that the accompanying visual effect nods back to “Being John Malkovich”). By the time Rose’s family hosts a party at which the only other black guest (Lakeith Stanfield) is dressed like a dandy and dating a white woman twice his age, Chris knows that something seriously fucked up is going on. Cue jump-scares, crazy revelations, mildly satisfying gore, and a second half that never quite figures out what to do with the loaded ideas confronted by the first.
This may be his first time behind the camera, but Peele (of “Key & Peele” fame) knows what he’s doing. His debut displays a natural ability to pivot between comedy and horror at a moment’s notice (Edgar Wright comes to mind), and his idiosyncratic voice feels relatively undiminished by the compromises of studio filmmaking (credit to horror-movie superproducer Jason Blum, who respects what his directors bring to the table).
That said, rookie mistakes abound. Peele could likely cut together a masterpiece from all of the opportunities he wastes here, as even the movie’s most intense sequences aren’t as frightening as their implications. However, the first-timer has a great eye for detail (the house is a monster unto itself) and he gets great stuff out of his cast. Chris’ tragic backstory goes to waste, but Kaluuya still finds plenty of nuance within the rare genre protagonist who never does anything stupid. And LilRel Howery is hilarious as Chris’ skeptical best friend who immediately assumes that Rose’s family is up to some weird, brainwashing, sex-slave conspiracy shit.
Still, nothing in “Get Out” is as funny as it could be, or as frightening as the fact that this film needed to be made in the first place. Peele might end his movie with a whimper of a third act, but the timidity of his storytelling is erased by the clear-eyed courage of his story. Without blinking, this film stares down some of the most damning truths about prejudice and intersectionality. It makes no bones about calling out white people for two-faced racism, taking particular exception to “the good ones” who are woke by day and sinister by night; who keep it 100 in public, and roughly -25 in private.
Peele’s premise proves too difficult to dramatize, but it cleverly allows him to riff on the conflicting white desires to simultaneously appropriate and erase black culture (an idea that Stanfield’s character embodies to perfection). It goes without saying that a lot of people aren’t going to be super comfortable about how the film plays out, but that’s not Peele’s problem. If anything, it’s his point, and it’s fun to watch him make it. “Get Out” may be deeply flawed, but it’s about time Hollywood put some muscle behind a movie that was less interested in flattering audiences than it was in scaring them straight.
“Get Out” premiered as a surprise screening at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released in theaters on February 24th.