Jordan Peele (2017)
It starts out as an updated version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, morphs by the second act into The Stepford Wives, and finally ends up going full Frankenstein. Whatever you think of writer-director Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out, you’re not likely to spend a lot of time saying, “Yeah, I saw that coming.”
Except perhaps in the opening scene, where a young black man is lost in the suburbs at night, looking for an address, and a car ominously pulls up next to him. It’s a cliché scene straight out of an old slasher movie, but with a black man in the place of a teenaged white girl. This looms like an ominous cloud over the first part of the movie, which otherwise seems sanguine enough. A young African American photographer, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya of Sicario) is getting ready to spend the weekend with his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. His white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of TV’s Girls) makes Chris even more nervous than he would normally be about this big step in their love life when she mentions that she hasn’t told her parents that he is black. They’ll be fine with it, she assures him. After all, they’re good old liberals—her dad would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have. Sure, we’re thinking from the audience. We’re seeing things through his eye here, not the rose-colored glasses that Rose seems to be wearing.
In a scene heavy with foreshadowing, the couple hit a deer on their way to the country estate, and Chris hears its cries and watches it bleed out the last of its innocent life. A local cop takes the accident report, and then asks to see Chris’s license, even though Rose was driving the car. Chris is willing to show the officer his license rather than to make any trouble, but Rose steps in and forces the officer to back down, sure that this is a subtle kind of racist harassment. What a good daughter of liberal parents she is.
Rose’s parents, with the incredibly white names of Missy and Dean Armitage, meet the couple at the front door of their impressive home. Dean (Bradley Whitford from TV’s West Wing) quickly goes over the top in welcoming his daughter’s new black boyfriend, calling him “my man” and mentioning—as expected—that he would have voted for Obama for a third term if he could have. He does employ an African American maid and groundskeeper, and seems hyper-conscious of how that must make him look to Chris, but he explains that Walter (Marcus Henderson) and the Georgina (Betty Gabriel) had worked for Dean’s parents until they died, and so he and Missy had kept them on as old family friends.
As Missy, the always impressive Catherine Keener (of…well, of the hundred things that Catherine Keener has been in) is far more reserved. She seems to be watching events from a distance, and calmly tries to keep Dean from making too big a fool of himself. It’s all rather awkward, but awkward in a fairly amusing way at this point—in a Spencer Tracy-Sidney Poitier kind of way. But there is, hovering in the edge of our consciousness, that dead deer, that suspicious cop, that black dude in the first scene—and the undercurrent of inevitable racism beneath the veneer of Dean’s hale fellow well-met. The paranoia that we seem to be feeling along with Chris gets pumped up significantly with the arrival of Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones from TV’s Friday Night Lights), who seems like a loose cannon and makes thinly-veiled aggressive suggestions to Chris.
Even stranger are Chris’s encounters with “the help.” He approaches both Walter and Georgiana at different points, trying to find somebody in this extremely white neighborhood that he can feel more at home with. But both the housekeeper and the groundskeeper relate to him even more awkwardly than the Armitages: They both talk like white people—in fact, their language is that of white people who are about eighty years old. What they really sound like are black people doing a parody of how white people talk. The effect is eerily unsettling. And it certainly does nothing to make Chris feel more at ease.
Chris feels even less at ease after Missy (a psychiatrist, married to neurosurgeon Dean) hypnotizes him without his consent the first evening in the house. Ostensibly, this is to cure his smoking habit, but there is a menacing note to it, as the hypnotized Chris tumbles mentally into a dark “sunken place,” where he can only glimpse the real world helplessly across an unbridgeable black gulf.
He wakes back in his bed, but the fear of that hypnosis experience nags at him. But at least he doesn’t want to smoke any more. Things descend to their weirdest point the next day at a garden party attended by a large group of the Armitages’ friends—all of them middle aged or older white folks, and all of them with some sort of uncomfortable borderline racist remarks to make. Chris spots one African American from behind, and approaches him like an oasis in the desert, but Anthony (rapper Lakeith Stanfield, from Straight Outa Compton) is as awkward in this situation as Walter and Georgiana were: He is married to a white woman twice his age, and he is dressed and acts like a white man twice his age: He wears a straw hat, sport coat and khakis while he sips a martini. And when Chris tries to fist-bump him, Anthony gives him a weak handshake. The only relatively comfortable conversation Chris has at this party is with a blind former photographer played by Stephen Root (Office Space, The Man in the High Castle). He’s white, but he recognizes the absurdity of his fellow guests, and he knows and admires Chris’s work. It’s a bit of a relief for Chris to find that somebody here is normal. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Chris is ready to leave after this party, but all hell is about to break loose, and that’s really about all I can tell you without spoiling the whole movie. The twists that come are interesting and shocking, and the end of the film, which makes good on the promise of blood, gore, and horror, will be satisfying for those who have come to this film thinking they were going to see a formulaic comedy-horror flick. The comedy part is probably less satisfying: Many people have found the film funny, and I suppose there is some amusing social satire in the veiled racism of some of the conversations, and in the bizarre affect of Walter, Georgiana, and Anthony, but for the most part the; atmosphere is tense rather than humorous. The only laugh-out-loud moments come from Chuck’s friend and dog-sitter Rod (LilRel Howery of TV’s The Carmichael Show) a TSA agent back in the city, who keeps telling Chris via his iPhone to get the hell out of there, and conjures up Jeffrey Dahmer style scenarios to scare Chris with. If only Chris would listen.
Peele, previously known for “MadTV” and as half of the comedy sketch team “Key & Peele,” gets well away from the comedy sketch genre in his directorial debut, and creates a deftly crafted spoof of the cliché horror flick, but one with a disturbing underlying theme. Peele sets out to debunk the myth of a “post-racial” America, and he does so not by taking on the easy target of openly racist rednecks, but by focusing rather on the sublimated racism of the liberal elites. But if the purpose of satire is to reform society by lambasting societal folly and vice, then Get Out cannot be said to have fulfilled this function: The satirical target here are too entrenched, too committed to the destructive path. It takes a bloodbath at the end, a complete destruction of the film’s society, not a reformation, to bring about the purgation of vice. In part that is characteristic of the horror genre, but in effect it also suggests the unleashing of at least as powerful a counter-racism in the brutally violent denouement. In the end the film is a grim picture of a society where no one is to be trusted and everyone is a potential enemy. Three Tennysons for this one.