Jordan Peele’s Get Out is the most trenchant studio release in years, a slow-building, often hilarious horror thriller built upon a dead-serious idea: that a black man walking alone through white suburbs is in as much danger as any slasher-flick teenager. Peele opens with that image, showing us, in a long and tense single take, a young man making his way down a sidewalk at night, studying the interchangeable homes for an address. A car eases up behind him, moving too slowly, and the revelation — a sick joke you might choke on as you laugh — is that Get Out needs none of the phantasmagoric trappings of its genre to terrify. What’s the usual restless spirit or chainsaw maniac got on a paranoid white dude with a concealed carry?
Hollywood scare scenes — and the developers of suburbs — have long traded in the demonization of a figure that many white Americans, when speaking only to themselves, call the “big scary black guy.” For real, white folks, how often have you heard acquaintances or family members tell stories that turn on some version of that phrase? It’s sometimes whispered or accompanied by an apologetic wince, the goal of which is to goad the listener into nodding along or otherwise exhibiting wrongheaded empathy: So I’m walking back to my car and all of a sudden this — here the speaker glances around — big scary black guy comes up, but I just kept walking.
Peele has dared a radical inversion — and he’s enlisted all the power of popular genre filmmaking to do it. The first scene of Get Out casts the black man as the innocent victim, the car’s presumably white driver as the malevolent force, the suburban street as the space that force haunts. One minute in, this movie that will play every mall in America makes it viscerally clear that it’s not black guys who are scary — it’s neighborhoods packed with sheltered dopes who quake at the very thought of black guys.
The courageous writer/director is playing with fire, here, and I mean playing in the best sense of the word. He’s half of the comedy duo Key & Peele, who in their sketches have always glanced lightly against hard truths. Horror and comedy both turn on gags, and Peele demonstrates a fluid facility with both kinds, which often in Get Out aren’t distinct from each other at all. The story finds Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer, venturing into that same suburb from the opening to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams).
What he encounters, at first, could be a straight-faced sketch about well-heeled-but-sheltered white liberals: Rose’s neurosurgeon father (Bradley Whitford) can’t resist telling Chris that he would have voted for Obama a third time; her lacrosse-bro brother (Caleb Landry Jones) observes that, with his build and some serious training, Chris would be a “beast” of an MMA fighter; her psychiatrist mother (Catherine Keener) makes things more awkward every time she tries to make them less so.
More pressingly creepy: this wealthy family’s pair of oddly out-of-time black servants (Marcus Henderson and a heartbreaking Betty Gabriel), both of whom beam as they work, regarding their white masters the way Will Smith’s Bagger Vance looked at that golfer schmo Matt Damon played.
In a comedy, these incidents might each prick a laugh and then pass, helped along by jaunty music and the genre’s dependence on redemptive narrative arcs — we’d be cued that these people still mean well. Here, each slight stings and lingers, Peele’s comic skills weaponized. Chris flinches, disappointed yet unsurprised, when a neighbor seizes his bicep and begins a sentence with “You know, with your genetic makeup...” The gag is simultaneously a send-up of white cluelessness, an evocation of the pain and humiliation of being viewed only as a body and a clue in the twisty, satisfying mystery of what’s really going on in Rose’s suburb.
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And something is going on, of course. Peele has counted the thrillers of Ira Levine (writer of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives) among his inspirations, and most of Get Out finds Chris uncertain whether he’s the victim in a horror plot — or whether everyone just acts bizarre around him. Forever understanding, Rose hears Chris out when he says that he thinks that the help keep unplugging his phone, or that her mother hypnotized him the night before. She’ll make a flirty joke out of the ridiculousness of such a thought, but then volunteer to say something to her parents about it anyway — a move Chris must then shoot down, lest she make his situation worse. Chris’s only release: funny phone chats with his pal back in the city, a TSA agent played by the comedian Lil Rel Howery.
Get Out is searing satire, with scary/comic riffs on slavery and assimilation, but it’s also a smashing crowd-pleaser of a horror film, complete with mad science, cult-like crazies and a creep-out homage to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. The buildup to the big revelations can be uneven, and one tearful monologue gets plopped into precisely the wrong spot, killing the momentum after the craziest scene.
But Get Out is fully surprising in both concept and craft, with the scares never coming just when you expect them and the secrets more audacious than you might be guessing. At the raucous screening I attended, the mixed-race crowd cheered the bloody third act, the violence — like its victims — all stirringly well executed. But even as Peele brings the house down, we see the serious toll of all this horror on Chris' face and body. Neither the movie nor anybody watching can take it all as a joke.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, and Caleb Landry Jones. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R. 130 minutes. Opens Friday, February 24.