Woke Horror: Horror looks good on Jordan Peele in bold, devilish "Get Out"

Get Out (2017)
103 min., rated R.

Jordan Peele, one-half of sketch-comedy duo “Key and Peele,” must have had the foresight to know the America that would be born around the release of his accomplished directorial debut. It being a horror film, “Get Out” marks Peele’s first foray into a genre one doesn’t ordinarily equate him with, and his intentions are devilish, thoughtful, and courageous. Racism still exists and it’s an unsettling thought, so Peele dares to repurpose the taboo of an interracial relationship from 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” through a looking glass by way of 1975’s “The Stepford Wives.” Taking itself too seriously to be called a “horror-comedy” but knowing when to make an audience chuckle out of discomfort or with an intentional one-liner, “Get Out” is worth celebrating as ballsy, incendiary genre filmmaking ready to takes chances.

When 26-year-old photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) prepares to leave the city to go upstate with Rose (Allison Williams), his white girlfriend of five months, to meet her parents for the weekend, he asks her if they know that he’s black. She reassures him that her family is progressive and even promises that her dad would have voted for Barack Obama for a third term. Once they get to the estate, things start off okay. Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), a psychiatrist and neurosurgeon, welcome Chris in open arms, even if Dad oversteps in his attempts to relate, calling his daughter’s boyfriend, “my man,” and plays the socially liberal card too much. They also have black “servants” in groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and very polite maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who helped care for Rose’s grandparents. Then, when Missy offers to hypnotize Chris to kick him of his smoking habit, she gets a hold on him and takes him back to a memory of childhood trauma that has overwhelmed him with guilt. It’s not fully until an annual gathering of the Armitages’ older bourgeois white friends where Chris feels like he’s in a “twilight zone.” Of course, something extremely devious is going on, but what?

Gutsy in both its conception and delivery, “Get Out” is sharply envisioned with the right amount of uncomfortable humor and outright malevolence. Without the foreshadowing of its opening scene, the film begins with deceptive hopefulness and very well could have been the start of a more naturalistic “Meet the Parents” for Chris. The tone writer-director Jordan Peele strikes is quite assured, balancing knife-cutting tension and tension-relieving humor into a mix that gels. The script is so smartly plotted and tightly conceived, little details that might feel like throwaways at first turning out to make total sense when viewed in retrospect. It’s also unpredictable for those paying attention, as Peele never prematurely spills out his bag of tricks or telegraphs any revelations before Chris gets there. All bets are off, and by the time Chris and the audience are both up to speed about what awaits him, the disturbing horror elements get cranked up to eleven. The final third is executed as a breathless climax, a satisfying, crowd-cheering ride, and Peele even sticks the ending by continuing to subvert his audience with one last moment of misdirection that becomes cathartic.

Behind the camera, Jordan Peele proves himself to be a real actor’s director, too, starting with the superb work from Daniel Kaluuya (2015’s “Sicario”). In his breakout lead role as Chris, the British actor brings such charisma and accessibility to a man who feels a little uneasy being in an environment as one of only a few black folks and then, once the jig is up, justifiably so. As the viewer learns with Chris about what’s really going on, there is a true sense of worry for him. The instantly appealing Allison Williams (HBO’s “Girls”) has a tricky line to tread as Rose, who clearly loves Chris in the five months they’ve spent together but doesn't totally cancel out the possibility of her having any involvement with the overall strangeness, either. Rose first sticks up for him in front of a police officer coming to their aid after they hit a deer on their way to her parents’ house and asks for Chris’s identification, even though Rose was the one driving. Her character is fully formed and memorably sells a final moment involving milk, Froot Loops, and the iconic “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing.” Impeccably cast as Rose’s parents Dean and Missy, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are aces, wavering between warmly welcoming and intimidating. The casting of Caleb Landry Jones is almost a given by now that any character he plays is up to no good, but he’s effective nonetheless as Rose’s off-putting brother Jeremy. Betty Gabriel, a force to be reckoned with in 2016’s “The Purge: Election Year,” is chilling as hell as the crying-while-smiling-brightly housekeeper Georgina. Finally, stand-up comedian Lil Rel Howery is a scream as Chris’ best friend Rod, a TSA agent who takes his job deadly seriously and acts as the voice of reason and an audience surrogate. His jokier scenes of investigating a missing person could have hurt the momentum and tone with the current action involving Chris or felt divorced as if from a different, broader movie, but rarely do.

Tech credits are straightforward, with a few exceptions, but still worth mentioning. Flanagan and Allen’s jaunty “Run, Rabbit, Run” is used to creepy effect in the prologue, shot in one take where a black man (Lakeith Stanfield) becomes lost in a posh suburban neighborhood at night. The score by first-time feature composer Michael Abels has a bluesy, whispery, down-home vibe and maximizes the off-center tone. In terms of visual style, cinematographer Toby Oliver turns a hypnotherapy session into a truly freaky nightmarescape. During it, Missy sends Chris' consciousness to a place she calls "the sunken place" that calls to mind Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and, perhaps as a deliberate nod with the participation of Catherine Keener, Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich.”

“Get Out” is blistering, disquieting, slyly satirical and entertaining. The jump scares that exist here are still properly timed with musical stingers and do actually intensify the rising dread, but it's the anxiety Chris feels and the anticipation of what sinister secrets live under the white-picket fence suburbs that become the bulk of the subversive fun. The film never wimps out, confronting ideas of racial expectations and assimilation for piercing social commentary without taking a sledgehammer approach. With the help of the fiercely indie-minded Jason Blum getting a picture like this greenlit within the studio system, Jordan Peele sticks to his guns and seems to have fully made the film he wanted to make without any tinkering or mainstream pandering. He is such a trailblazing talent behind the camera that one gets excited just thinking what ideas are festering in that mind of his for a sophomore project. Giving one plenty to think about and discuss later, “Get Out” is as important as “12 Years of Slave,” and suffice it to say, it might be more scarily relevant now than ever. 

Grade: A -