Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Night of the Living Dread: Jordan Peele’s Get Out

Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's Get Out.

 Note: This review contains spoilers for Get Out.
Jordan Peele, one half of the sketch comedy duo Key & Peele, has made his directorial debut with a comedy horror film that is not only a box office hit – taking in nearly $35 million on opening weekend on a $4.5 million budget – but an artistic triumph, too, approaching Robert Eggers levels of cinematic near-perfection on his first crack at bat. Comedy and horror are probably the two easiest genres to screw up (where one flat joke or failed scare can bring the whole thing tumbling down), but with Get Out, Peele walks that tightrope effortlessly, delivering a movie that is both terrifying and hilarious. That it’s also brilliantly smart is just icing on the cake.

I’ll come right out with it: I feel awkward talking about this film as a white critic. Get Out is deeply rooted in the so-called “black experience” (a phrase that is itself harpooned in the film), going to extreme lengths to express the fears, anxieties, reservations, and petty cruelties that people of colour live with every day when they interact with a predominantly white culture here in the Western world. It’s perhaps very appropriate that I feel awkward, because the well-intentioned yet tone-deaf approach that the film’s white characters take to interacting with the protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), are equally cringeworthy. But with that said – and with you now forewarned to take my view on the film with a grain of pure white salt – it’s undeniable that Get Out has mass appeal, because no matter its politics, it’s just a goddamn great movie.

The film opens on an unnamed black man walking through a suburb at night, expressing his discomfort with his surroundings to a friend on the phone. A white car follows him, and when he notices this he immediately makes an attempt to leave the area (smart characters are the best characters!) but not quickly enough to escape the masked man driving the car, who subdues and kidnaps him. Then we meet Chris, who is anxious about meeting his girlfriend’s parents at their country estate. The girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), reassures him, admitting that while her parents will be painfully, embarassingly “white” about the whole affair, they’re not racists and will accept him with open arms. As the weekend plays out and Chris is introduced to Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), his wife Missy (Catherine Keener), their son Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), and their Stepford-esque club of affluent white friends, Rose appears to have been telling the truth – until disturbing hints that something sinister is going on at the estate (from a forceful hypnosis to black caretakers whose behaviour is eerily stilted) lead to all-out panic as Chris fights for his life to escape the twisted machinations of the Armitages.

Peele drew from many clear influences to create the tense, disturbing atmosphere of Get Out (having publicly cited Stepford Wives, Night of the Living Dead, and Scream, to name a few), but finds his own voice in his creative application of these sources. (A large part of both the atmosphere and the film’s unique voice comes from composer Michael Abels, who combines a classical sensibility with African influences to create one of the most engaging, tense, and finely-crafted scores I’ve heard in a long time.) Perhaps the clearest comparison for me is to Edgar Wright’s films, in everything from the careful balance of horror and comedy, to the genuine pathos and heartfelt character work, to the stylish camera and editing techniques. The way Get Out is structured, with oodles of delicious minutia that each serve as their own setups for later payoffs, was strongly reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead, and its penchant for shocking plot turns involving secret white societies hiding beneath a genial, friendly façade felt like a nod to Hot Fuzz. (It wasn’t surprising to learn while researching this film that Peele in fact spoke at length with Wright while making Get Out, finding common ground with him as a horror geek.) This devil is very much in the details, and the closer I look at the details, the more impressed I am with how thoughtful and smoothly-integrated they are. Visual and thematic motifs are used to brilliant effect, like the deer which Chris hits with his car, which triggers feelings about his mother having been killed the same way when he was a boy, which ties to the taxidermied deer head that becomes a deadly weapon of retribution in his hands – not to mention his inability to leave “Grandma” collapsed on the road after hitting her in his escape vehicle. (Dean’s early rant about deer as pests to be exterminated is just fuel for this fire, given how he eventually goes out.) When a highway patrolman stops to check on Rose and Chris after they hit the deer, Rose’s disgust at the policeman’s seemingly racially-charged request to see Chris’ ID registers as sweet and protective – until you realize that she simply didn’t want the cop to be able to track Chris to her estate, where she was planning to disappear him. The groundskeeper’s bizarre “exercise” routine, played for a quick scare early on, seems meaningless until you recall Dean’s mention of Jesse Owens, who beat out “Grandpa” for the Olympic gold. The fact that the protagonist saves himself from a horrific fate by literally picking cotton is the kind of audacious, hilarious, fiendishly clever idea that could only come from someone like Jordan Peele. Get Out is full to bursting with ingenious and thoughtful elements like this, and they’re pulled together tightly to make a seamless experience where not a single scene, shot, or line is wasted. 

Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener in Get Out.

The temptation to slip into the “get whitey” 70s blaxploitation genre must have been hard for Peele to resist, given the outright nastiness of Get Out’s fair-skinned antagonists. But he keeps a careful hold on the film’s tone, never letting it slip into exploitative territory, and as the screenwriter he’s also able to make sure that the instances of black violence against white oppressors are earned through the script, and not simply a hollow vehicle for sociopolitical commentary. You cheer when Chris kills the Armitages (and cheer my Yonge & Dundas screening did – this is one movie you definitely want to experience with an inner-city audience) not because of any real-life implications – although I can’t speak for black audiences, who may have enjoyed a catharsis that was lost on me – but because they have been established in the film as evil, duplicitous, racist assholes who deserve to get got. Everything from the concept of white guilt to white jealousy to racial purity to dysfunctional interracial relationships is cleanly eviscerated, exposing not just the pallid truth but also the bald absurdity of these ideas. Peele practically dances through these weighty topics with Get Out’s unapologetically pulpy premise and the liberal application of humour, which he places at precise moments that allow you to breathe after periods of sustained white-knuckle tension. Peele has said of his approach:
I’m obsessed with the link between horror and comedy. I think they’re very close. They’re both about getting a very physical kind of reaction. It’s about tension and it’s about the release of tension.
This is perhaps why an artist with strong comedic sensibilities might be the best possible choice for a horror film, and why the balance between the two genres works so well in Get Out. There are few things that relieve, relax, and disarm us more than a good laugh, and Peele is an expert at manipulating these rhythms to maximum effect. It’s amazing stuff, made even more impressive given that this is his debut effort.

There’s barely room here to speak to Get Out’s cast and how pitch-perfect their performances are, but I can’t let it go unsaid. Daniel Kaluuya, who I only knew from a tiny role in Sicario and a particularly ferocious performance in a Black Mirror episode called “Fifteen Million Merits”, expresses Chris’ awkwardness, pride, fear, and rage in a powerhouse performance that’s magnetic and physical. The Armitage family members, especially Whitford, are beautifully in tune with the film’s viciously clever tone, and the other black people Chris meets at the estate – including “Logan”, the man kidnapped during the film’s cold open – are wonderfully unsettling and creepy. The standout, though, is Lil Rel Howery as Rod, Chris’ friend who works at the TSA, who becomes the film’s unsung hero when he realizes something terrible has happened to Chris. Howery’s comedic delivery – couched in suspicion about the Armitages that is meant to be lighthearted but expresses real, truthful doubt – had my screening howling, and his final appearance was met with cheers and hoots of joy. He makes Rod a character who is quick to joke, but also smart and proactive, deftly avoiding the pitfall of a one-dimensional comic relief character. In a film full of very effective performances, his stands out thanks to the intelligence hidden under the laughs. 

For me, Get Out’s racial commentary is effective because it gets at the insidious nature of normalized racism – the quiet, unassuming, “innocent” kind, the educated kind, the kind that smiles and welcomes you and makes sure you know they “would have voted for Obama for a third term.” Peele points an accusing, unforgiving finger at those who meet a black person and see that they’re black before they see a human being, in a way that feels autobiographical simply because it’s clear that every person of colour has experienced that very thing. Get Out would be worth recommending for this savagely righteous reason alone, but commentary on its own doesn’t really get the point across if it’s couched in a movie that nobody wants to watch. That’s not the case here. I don’t need to crow that I loved Get Out in an attempt to prove how cool I am to my black friends. The truth is, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t have a blast watching Get Out. It’s an instant classic. 

  – Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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