Get Out

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/24/17 10:09:33

"I Woke Up Screaming"
5 stars (Awesome)

One of the great things about genre filmmaking—especially of the horror variety—is that as long as they remember to work in the requisite amounts of blood or bullets or whatever to satisfy the most basic of requirements, an enterprising director can utilize the familiar narrative tropes to comment and critique on real-world matters, often in more trenchant and insightful ways than a lot of the more overtly serious-minded movies being made at the same time. For example, when Tobe Hooper signed on to make a sequel to his horror classic “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” he and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson took the opportunity to make a film that had all the chainsawing that one could possibly hope for but that also took aim at such targets as the greed-is-good mentality of the Eighties and gun culture in ways far smarter and funnier than anyone might have rightly expected from a movie entitled “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2.” Likewise, Joe Dante’s “Masters of Horror” episode “Homecoming” might have seemed like just another zombie-oriented tale on the surface but it displayed a righteous anger to the war in Iraq and the policymakers that led us smack dab into it that was sorely lacking in most of the straight-faced dramas on the subject. Alas, these days, few films are willing to mix things up in such a way for fear of potentially alienating scores of moviegoers but one that proudly goes against the grain in that respect is “Get Out,” a movie that works very well as a horror film but which works even better as a corrosive social satire that has more to say about many of the key issues regarding race and culture than practically all of the films currently vying for the Best Picture Oscar.

Daniel Kaluuya stars as Chris, a talented photographer who, as the story opens, has been dating Rose (Allison Williams) for about five months and is now therefore obligated to the duty that would set most any young man on edge—going away for the weekend to meet his girlfriend’s parents. This would be troubling under the most innocuous of circumstances but there is an extra level of tension for Daniel in the fact that he is African-American and that the ultra-Caucasian Rose has apparently not yet mentioned that detail to the folks. She is sure this will not be a problem—she says that her parents would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could—but Chris is still a little bit wary just on general principles. However, when they arrive at her parents lavish and secluded estate, the senior Armitages—neurosurgeon Dean and hypnotherapist Missy (Catherine Keener) are as friendly and effusive as can be, welcoming into their home. There is a bit of a sour note when Rose’s brother (Caleb Landry Jones) and tries to be a little intimidating at the dinner table but that seems like the behavior of a jerk who has had a little too much to drink than anything else.

On the surface, everything seems to be perfectly fine but Chris cannot help but notice that there are a few things that seem a little off. For one thing, Dean and Missy seem almost too accepting of Chris at times, all but patting themselves on the back to congratulate themselves on just how liberal and open-minded they are about the situation. That could be written off as just the inevitable result of them trying just a little too hard to seem casual but then there is the case of the Armitages’s live-in help, housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson). Both of them are black, of course, and while Dean sheepishly tries to explain this away—they used to work for his parents and he couldn’t bring himself to let them go after their passing—it still looks bad and their odd behavior (Walter likes running around the house at top speed at all hours of the night while Georgina spends a lot of time staring at her reflection in the mirror) doesn’t help matters. Then it appears that Missy has used her hypnotic techniques on Chris to get him to stop smoking, a move that now fills his head with some weird visions. Finally, at a garden party thrown by the Armitages every year, Chris runs across another young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) whose presence is even more disturbing than Chris realizes because of what we saw happen to him during the film’s prologue. After briefly recounting all this over the phone to his TSA officer friend (Lil Rel Howery), who gives him the titular admonition, Chris finally decides that it is time to get the hell out but just as he and Rose are heading for the front door to leave, things take a turn from the slightly uncomfortable to the downright horrific.

“Get Out” marks the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, one-half of the sketch-comedy duo of Key & Peele, and the heady blend of pull-no-punches satire and scares that he has presented makes for one of the most audacious films of any kind to emerge from a major studio in a while. His screenplay is exceptionally clever in the way that it takes the basic fear of being stuck in unfamiliar and increasingly discomfiting surroundings where everyone is acting peculiar—the feeling that has fueled such classics as “The Wicker Man,” “The Stepford Wives” and the various permutations of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”—and laces it with the very specific fears and paranoias of being a black man in America today to give it an exceptionally potent punch that is sure to provoke and rile viewers across the entire racial spectrum. While a mere description of the story may make it sound a little heavy-handed, it is a surprisingly subtle work in many regards. After the aforementioned prologue—an overtly provocative bit that blends together the standard horror trope of someone being followed down a darkened street with echoes of the murder of Trayvon Martin—it stresses the satirical aspects of the story for the next hour or so that brings a real charge to the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”-style premise while gradually moving towards the darker side until finally dropping the bomb and bringing the horrific elements front and center. Even then, the film is a lot smarter than anticipated because instead of going the easy route and making conservative racists into the bad guys, Peele has a more ingenious idea up his sleeve that packs an even bigger wallop in the end for viewers.

Based on his work on his justifiably celebrated TV show (politely overlooking the misfire that was the Key & Peele movie “Keanu”), one might expect Peele to write a strong, clever and audacious screenplay but the big surprise is just how effective he is as a director as well. This is the kind of film that requires just the right tone for it to work, lest it become too obvious and heavy-handed, and he miraculously finds it right from the very start and maintains it throughout. Much of the film is very funny throughout but at the same time, Peele keeps us constantly off-balance with the undercurrents of unease that he has deftly worked into the material that eventually pay off beautifully. He also gets strong work out of his actors—Kaluuya is good as the guy who knows that something is off, does all the right things and still gets in way over his head, Whitford and Keener are even better in the way that they deploy a sense of menace in their most seemingly friendly of gestures and Williams is quite good in a role that almost plays as a wicked joke on the persona she displays on “Girls.” The only time Peele sort of stumbles is during the final scenes when the cleverness is necessarily put on the back burner in order to wrap things up but even there, those scenes still work in terms of providing genuine thrills and chills and even sticks to his guns by providing some decidedly charged imagery that will leave some viewers cheering, others squirming in their seats and both with plenty to ponder after the end credits have rolled.

Filled with righteous anger, sly wit and genuine creepiness, “Get Out” is a savvy, stylish and enormously entertaining film that deserves a place on the same shelf as such other great politically charged horror films as John Carpenter’s “They Live” and the zombie films of George Romero. It has a lot of laughs, more than a few undeniable scares and announces Jordan Peele as a filmmaker to watch. Best of all, even though it may be a film overtly of this particular moment in time, it has been made with such skill that it will doubtless prove to be just as entertaining for viewers decades down the line when the immediate concerns it raises have faded somewhat from memory. Just before seeing this film, I saw a notice announcing that a deal had just been signed to launch the production of another entry in the “Purge” franchise, a series of films that, like this one, attempt to merge scares and social commentary but have so far whiffed it completely on both counts in three separate tries. Hopefully the people in charge of that one will get a chance to see “Get Out,” observe how effective a similar premise can be in the right hands and, if we are lucky, simply quit the whole thing while they are ahead.

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