Horror and comedy films are closer cousins than they initially appear: Both work by taking real life to its extremes; both subvert the familiar into the strange or absurd; both aim to evoke a physical response from its audience. And in the best examples of their kind, both use and transcend the conventions of their genres to make a larger point about the world we live in.
Viewed in that context, it seems perfectly apt that comedian Jordan Peele, known for his hilarious yet incisive commentary on race relations in the United States, should turn to horror for his movie directorial debut.
What is perhaps surprising is just how brilliantly it works. Thrilling, genuinely scary and laced with plenty of dark humour, Get Out is great entertainment. But it is also a movie with a larger aim in mind.
A self-confessed film geek, Peele draws on a variety of movies to craft his. Get Out opens with a classic horror movie set-up: a man is walking down a quiet street in a suburb, when he is suddenly beaten and dragged into a car by a mysterious figure.
But the scene is also something more. The man is black, and the sight of him walking alone in an upper-class American suburb, scared of what might happen to him because of the colour of his skin, is eerily reminiscent of real-life attacks and shootings of black men. Black people, the movie suggests, have much more to fear from white people than vice versa.
The movie then veers into what initially seems like a send-up of the 1967 Sidney Poitier classic Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner: Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black, is taking a weekend trip with his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her family for the first time. Do they know I’m black, he asks her. It won’t matter to them, she reassures him. Chris, being a black man living in the US, isn’t convinced (and neither are we), but goes along with it.
When Chris and Rose arrive at her parents’ suburban home, he takes their initial weirdness as them getting used to him being black. This intensifies when he meets more family and friends at a big annual gathering.
But soon, Chris suspects something more sinister is afoot. For one, there’s the way everyone at the party looks at and treats him, like a particularly fascinating specimen they are studying. Then, there’s the decidedly odd behaviour of the only other black people around, the Armitages’ housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson), with their blank expressions and practised speech. Slowly, Chris realises the terrifying truth about the situation he’s trapped in.
Get Out is a gripping horror flick in its own right, even more effective because of how well it plays on our familiarity with similar movies like The Stepford Wives and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. The film also boasts a great cast, particularly Kaluuya, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as Rose’s something’s-not-quite-right parents, and Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s hilarious best friend.
But where Get Out becomes something much more is the way the story layers each scene and line and plot point with a larger meaning, that of the African-American experience within a predominantly white culture.
Because Peele, who also wrote the screenplay, isn’t just interested in scaring his audience – though there are certainly plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments. Instead, he wants to use the scares in his film to make the audience reflect on the very real fears that permeate American society today.
This isn’t, of course, too different from what Peele has been doing all along with his comedy, particularly in the hugely successful Key And Peele sketch comedy series with Keegan-Michael Key.
Here, Peele manages to infuse Get Out with the many conversations about race that are happening in the US right now, specifically those involving the African-American community. It is a movie intensely aware of its place in this specific point in time, a post-Obama America still struggling to articulate that Black Lives Matter even while its new president spouts racially-divisive rhetoric.
In other words, the audience’s awareness and involvement in these conversations is very much a part of the movie’s success. The movie is terrifying precisely because it engages with fears larger than the onscreen variety. Race and racism isn’t the subtext here; it is the entire story.
Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Lil Rel Howery