Best of 2017, horror, Movies, Reviews, thriller

Jordan Peele’s Get Out explores the uncanny landscape of racial tension

Coming to UK screens off the back of huge box office success in the US, low budget horror film Get Out is destined to be one of the most talked about films of the year. Review follows… Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a talented young African American photographer living in a hip urban apartment. In its efficient establishing scenes Get Out seems to suggest a post-racialism America. Chris is professionally successful and in a mixed race relationship with smart liberal Rose (Allison Williams) but he has not forgotten his roots — as represented by his relationship with his best friend Rod (a hilarious Lil Rel Howery). The only dark cloud on the horizon is that Rose is taking Chris upstate to meet her parents for the first time. A prospect that would make any boyfriend anxious, but one with an added frisson for a mixed race relationship.

This sounds like the set up for a middle class comedy of manners and social awkwardness. A twenty-first century Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but Get Out’s opening scene firmly establishes that we are in horror territory. It is exactly the same opening you have seen in a thousand slasher movies since Halloween. Except that where usually it is a pretty white girl being stalked along the wide tree lined streets of middle class suburbia, Get Out replaces the girl with a black man.

When Chris arrives at Rose’s parent’s palatial mansion, he finds them to be liberal to an almost painful degree. Patriarch Dean (Bradley Whitford) shows off his collection of cultural artefacts, explains that he loves to get into other cultures, and he would have voted for Obama a third time. There is a little push back from Rose’s cooler mother Missy (Catherine Keener), but this is largely because of Chris’ smoking. Missy is a psychiatrist by trade and even offers to hypnotise him to remove the addiction. Something he politely declines.

Writer and director Jordan Peele conducts his film in a beautiful minor key. Even before Chris and Rose arrive at her parents tension is being built. A classic rural horror jump scare is used in a bait and switch to introduce an unsettling encounter with a highway patrolman and his casual racism.

When they arrive Chris is discombobulated by the family’s black servants, whose dress and deference echoes America’s less savoury history. Dean immediately addresses this elephant in the room in a way that adds further discomfort by suggesting Chris’ reaction is in itself somewhat prejudicial. If service jobs are available, why shouldn’t they go to hard working African Americans?

Get Out plays with the idea of the uncanny, the Freudian concept of the familiar being twisted just enough to become vaguely disturbing and mysterious. As a white male, I can’t speak for an African American audience, but the film’s huge US success demonstrates cross-racial appeal. I suspect an African British audience is going to find much that is relevant to their own experience in Get Out, but as a white British male I can say that the film made me deeply uncomfortable. The gut twisting suspense that is built-in the brilliant first half comes from presenting recognisable social situations filtered through Chris’ point of view as an African American man. Because of this they become imbued with sinister shadows.

As a horror film, Get Out owes a huge debt to the work of novelist Ira Levin, in particular his novel The Stepford Wives and its 1975 film adaptation. Peele has acknowledged this in interviews. Some more gore hungry horror fans have pointed to Brian Yuzna’s squishy Society as a touchstone, but Get Out has a far more realistic approach to its presentation of ‘normal’ society, than Yuzna’s heightened daytime soap approach.

The effect of playing familiar horror tropes from a black person’s point of view is incredibly striking for a white horror fan like myself. Just as Levin used a female point of view to make the apple pie and picket fences ideal of domesticity seem suddenly threatening, Peele uses Chris’ p.o.v to make the norms of white liberalism suddenly sinister. Get Out really makes you realise just how ‘white’ the point of view in most horror western films actually is. Casting diversity is a laudable aim, but it does not necessarily translate into actually presenting diverse stories. Jordan Peele’s triumph with Get Out is how it has proven that a genre film from a diverse viewpoint can have universal appeal.

Get Out’s bravura centrepiece is a garden party thrown by Rose’s family in which Chris has to endure a succession of grotesque raging white liberals going to pains to tell him how much they admire his people (there is a particularly excruciating conversation about golf and Tiger Woods). Here it wasn’t comparisons with any horror film that I saw, but with ‘Juneteenth’ the ninth episode of the first season of Donald Glover’s comedy series Atlanta.

Incidentally Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield has small but significant part in Get Out.

Jordan Peele has a comedy background as part of the stand up duo Key and Peele, and he has zeroed in on exactly the same insidious liberal racism that Glover does. Juneteenth also features a middle class party thrown by a white patriarch who professes love for black history and culture, but whose ingratiating attempts to appear ‘down’ with it cross over into creepiness. Glover’s series has a surreal edge but largely keeps itself in a realistic mode. Peele pushes Get Out into Grand Guignol in a manic last act.

It is here that the movie slightly loses its edge. The final explanation of events is interesting on a metaphorical level, but it doesn’t make a huge amount of logical sense. Peele has made a hugely impressive debut, but he is stronger with comedy and in creating tension than he is with the actual scares. The movie thankfully uses jump scares sparingly, but I found them a little cheesy. And Caleb Landry Jones turns up as Rose’s brother delivering one of his trademark intense and intensely mannered performances. You either like Landry Jones or find his presence in a movie like nails on a blackboard. I’m in the latter camp.

Outside of my issues with Landry Jones, the film is superbly cast. Whitford and Keener both superbly walk a line between appearing benevolent and sinister, Allison Williams plays what seems to be a more stable version of her Girls character with warmth and intelligence, but is is British actor Kaluuya who owns the film with a subtle and convincing performance that should shoot him into the A-list. The film also looks very slick on a modest budget. Special mention must go to modern classical composer Michael Abels who supplies an unusual score that mixes choral elements of slave spirituals with dark Omen-esque chanting.

Minor issues aside Get Out finds the sweet spot where the laughter of social embarrassment turns into deep unease and pummels it mercilessly like a sadistic masseuse until the audience is whimpering. This is not only going to be one of the horror films of 2017. It is one of the best films of 2017 and one that you should not see alone. Not because it is scary and unsettling (although it is both of those things to greater and lesser degrees) but because you will want to talk about this film as soon as the credits roll.

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