R 103 mins. Jordan Peele USA 2017
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a masterful exercise in social commentary and a damn good horror film steeped in the horror tradition. Peele’s references aren’t mere knowing nods and winks, moreover; he evokes horror tropes in order to reflect on their earlier meanings and to create new meanings. Despite Peele’s brilliance, though, the film would not have worked as well as it did were it not for a stunning performance by Daniel Kaluuya as the film’s lead, Chris Washington. Kaluuya carried the film with his grace, compassion, humor and, in the end, his anger and outrage. As a horror fan, I was enthralled with a film that unequivocally embraced the horror tradition. As a moviegoer, I was drawn in and moved by Kaluuya’s Chris.
Kaluuya himself would not have been as effective without a stellar (and often chilling) supporting cast—especially Allison Williams as Chris’s girlfriend, Rose Armitage, Bradley Whitford as her father, Dean, Betty Gabriel as the Armitages’ housekeeper, Georgina, and LilRel Howery as Ron, TSA agent extraordinaire. Is it time, finally, for a horror film to win in some big categories at the Academy Awards (film, director, actor, supporting actor and actress) for the first time since Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (which was, let’s remember, a whopping 26 years ago, now?)
As the trailer makes clear, the film is about Chris and Rose’s ill-fated trip to visit Rose’s parents in a wealthy wooded town.
Things are off from the get-go, as a white cop asks for Chris’s ID after they hit a deer, even though Rose is driving (as she indignantly points out). Then come Rose’s family, who for a short time seem merely to embody the clueless white liberals who think they get (and are above) the problem of racism. This is who Jordan Peele is on record as saying inspired his film—the white people who are compelled to tell Chris they would have voted for Obama a third time if they could, who declare their admiration for Tiger Woods the minute the conversation turns to golf, and who assume he spent his childhood streetfighting. As Sam Adams of Salon quotes Peele as saying, “‘That is how we experience racism’ . . . less through open acts of bigotry than through conversations that make it clear who belongs and who comes from outside. ‘The monster of racism lurks underneath that conversation.’”[i] Indeed, nobody ever asks Chris what he does or what he likes without beginning the sentence with some sort of declaration about who they already think he is and what they already think he likes.
In Get Out, the monster of racism doesn’t do a whole lot of lurking underneath polite cocktail party conversations, though. Before too long, it’s out in the open, and the tension builds as Chris tries to figure out where the line is between tolerable racial ignorance, intolerable racism, and downright freaky I-need-to-get-the-hell-out-of-here-because-crazy-violent-shit-is-happening. That Kaluuya’s Chris is so easygoing, and so inured to casual racism, taking with patient and affable resignation a lot of what makes his girlfriend angry, makes it all the more terrifying when he finally realizes that he’s in way over his head—that unthinkable things are happening to African American men and women in this “idyllic” white town.
Everyone’s talking about, and praising Get Out right now, so in an effort not to say things everyone’s saying, I want to focus on just one thing that seems particularly important about the film—and it’s about its evident evocation of the 1975 film, The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes). The parallels Peele draws to this earlier film—itself a political satire, about the entrenched resistance of both men and women to the women’s movement—are deeply embedded in his film: there’s the drive out from the city to the country, the main character’s profound sense of alienation in what everyone else thinks is a perfect community, the strange robotic behavior of the few whom the main character hopes would be allies; there’s even a party scene in both films when one of the “robots” visibly “malfunctions.”
It’s also very important, I think, that both Chris and Joanna (Katharine Ross) are photographers—very good photographers, actually, and yet, for different reasons, this doesn’t matter. Joanna’s work is dismissed because she’s a woman—and even she struggles to take it seriously. Chris is, we find out near the halfway mark of a the film, a recognized professional photographer. But only one person ever raises this fact. Why? It’s because, as the film makes clear, it doesn’t matter what Chris does. What matters is what white people value in him and what they value in him is not his talent, not about anything he uniquely is. When Rose’s father, Dean, asks Chris at one point, “What is your purpose, Chris, in life?” he already knows the answer, and it’s a deeply perverse one.
I’ll end by pointing out the intriguing focus on eyes on each film. One of the men in Stepford sketches Joanna (for purposes of creating the robot she will literally become), and Forbes gives us a close-up of her eye. And then one of the most chilling frames of the film, near the end, is of Joanna’s eyes, indicating her now lost humanity.
Peele does a lot with Chris’s eyes—some of which I won’t go in to here because it gives away too much of the ending. But one of the most widely circulated stills of the film has been a close-up of Chris’s face, eyes wide open, tears streaming down his face. In this moment, Chris is being hypnotized against his will, and his eyes in this shot are open but unseeing, just as Joanna’s are at the end of The Stepford Wives.
What both films brilliantly represent through their use of eyes is the way in which an oppressive culture tries to render some people (women, African Americans) objects, able to be seen (and used) but not able to see themselves, not able to define themselves and create their own reality. That’s what the men in Stepford do to Joanna, and it’s what the white people in Get Out try to do to Chris.
You’ll have to watch to see if they succeed—and to discover for yourself how very much there is to Peele’s brilliant film.
[i] Sam Adams, “In Jordan Peele’s Horror Movie, Get Out, Liberal Racism is the “Monster,” Slate.com, January 25, 2017, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/01/25/at_sundance_jordan_peele_explains_how_obama_s_election_inspired_his_horror.html