I can honestly say that I have never been so affected by a horror film in the same way as Get Out. Highly original, sharp and – I’m just gonna say it – woke as hell, Get Out is Jordan Peele’s feature-length directorial debut. Aside from being genuinely unsettling, it has much to say about the fraught state of race relations in the U.S., the history of the commodification and fetishisation of certain bodies, and current social anxieties. Plus it’s funny! So, so, funny! Being an expert parodist, it’s no wonder that Peele’s directorial debut has the strains of a biting social satire which doesn’t hold back, thanks to an artful mixture of dread and wit.
We open in an affluent neighbourhood at night. A young man is walking along the sidewalk, talking on his cellphone, when a fancy car pulls up and starts following him. Logic should dictate that the person in the car is what’s presenting a threat, if not for one detail: the young man is black. He understands full well that his mere presence on this street is considered a threat, and in the interest of self-preservation he does what he’s trained himself to do: just keep walking, don’t make any sudden movements, and definitely don’t run. Suddenly, the driver of the car gets out and kidnaps him, and the audience is confronted with the fact that we watched a person being followed on the street, but because of his race, we failed to recognise the real threat. It is this duality which is key to the effectiveness of Get Out: we are constantly presented scenes which feel familiar, but injected with the mortal dread normally found in horror films.
We then cut to Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams), who are preparing to travel to Rose’s family home for the weekend, where Chris will meet her parents for the first time. Chris asks if they are aware that he is black, and Rose insists that although they are not aware, they will have no problem with it. Then follows a series of situations in which the family members go out of their way to show just how totally okay they are with him being black. This performative acceptance only makes Chris (and the audience) feel more uncomfortable, and things only get creepier when Chris meets Rose’s family friends, and the black servants who live and work at the house.
Peele has done an incredible job of visually articulating that very specific, complicated feeling of being at the receiving end of a microaggression, where you’re not sure what just happened, or the appropriate way to respond. That feeling of wanting to articulate your feelings and not being able to. By amplifying the discomfort in the interactions between Chris and Rose’s family, Peele gives the audience members who have experienced this something to identify with, and those who haven’t a taste of what it’s like. I have never before seen this feeling presented on screen so well.
A source of palpable tension in the film is between Chris’ instinct that something is off, versus his instincts of self-preservation. As a person of colour, he’s had to train himself to ignore some things in order to survive socially. This social tension informs the suspense: like the young man on the street, Chris isn’t sure if the unease he feels about the whole situation stems from paranoia, or a genuine danger. Kaluuya embodies this unease physically: he is broad-shouldered, confident, but he moves with a guardedness of someone who is trying to be careful not to touch anything, lest he cause damage. Some of the most striking images from this film are close-ups of his face reacting to odd interactions, in which he is conveying something very complex: discomfort mixed with enforced self-doubt.
Another source of unease in the film comes from Peele’s nod to the history of commodification of black bodies. In several awkward exchanges, Chris’ physique is commented on in a way which can only be described as dehumanising, and at one point it’s inferred that physical superiority and intellectual inferiority are part of his “genetic makeup”. At Rose’s house he is a curiosity, put on display as something for the white folks to take in. Aside from being socially awkward, these exchanges are charged with anxiety and dread that comes from a history of black bodies being subjugated to oppression.
All of the performances in this film are superb. The casting of Allison Williams as Rose is a stroke of genius: she brings the association to the TV show ‘Girls’ and its legacy of criticism for being ‘whitewashed’. Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford are brilliant as Rose’s awkward, liberal-elite parents, and Betty Gabriel as the maid Georgina is a standout. Her performance is a masterclass of creepiness.
The main reason that this film succeeds is that it does what all great horror films do: it takes a very real fear which has its roots in contemporary cultural anxieties, and makes this the source of the horror. Too many horror films rely on silly jump scares and special effects (see here and here), and it seems that a lot of studio executives and filmmakers forget that CGI monsters and sudden noises are not what make a horror film effective. Fear stems from anxiety and comes from within – the thing that makes a horror film good is the feeling that follows you after movie is over, the one you can’t shake. I am pretty confident that a little girl with long black hair isn’t going to climb out of a TV and kill me; but I do feel genuine anxiety when I’m at the airport and I have to write down that my place of birth is Baghdad. Jordan Peele gets this, and his directorial debut has got me shook.
Go see it.
Get Out opens in NZ cinemas on 4th May 2017.
Image: Paramount Pictures