I have only seen two movies in the past year where the audience spontaneously applauded at the end: Hidden Figures and Get Out. Both outbursts were well deserved and both movies accomplish similar missions by wildly different means: shining a bright light on racism and inequality in America. They also happen to both be wonderful films. At the end of Hidden Figures, you feel proud and uplifted. When the credits roll on Get Out, you probably will feel the opposite.
Get Out is great genre and great cinema and it deserves to be seen, so I will keep some plot points and major third act spoilers out while we unpack what is so great about this film. If you like thrillers, satire, cultural commentary, or just good movies you should see Get Out.
Get Out is Jordan Peele’s feature debut as both a writer and director and his skills behind the camera are on point. Scenes are blocked and composed creatively and there is not a scene or shot out of place. You can tell just from the trailer that Jordan Peele has a knack for crafting memorable shots and his handiwork is all over the final product. Peele wonderfully realizes the sense of being detached from oneself in scenes of hypnosis by placing characters visually in a “sunken place”: a black, gravity-free void where characters float, suspended several yards below a screen showing their perception. The film grabs you right in the first scene and does not let go from there.
Peele went with a cold open that is unfortunately too familiar to many today in America. A black man is walking down a suburban street, seemingly lost. A car begins tailing him and he realizes that he needs to try to keep his head down and avoid an uncomfortable exchange. Before he can get away, a masked person incapacitates him and tosses him in a trunk. We are then introduced to Chris Washington and Rose Armitage, an interracial couple visiting Rose’s white parents’ rural manor in upstate New York. Chris is understandably concerned about how her parents will react while Rose insists that they will be fine with the situation. At every beat, the story ramps up the discomfort and the disease in delightful and interesting ways.
The couple is interrogated by a state highway patrolman after hitting a deer and the officer demands Chris’s ID, even though he wasn’t driving. Was it racism, an overly aggressive cop, a reasonable request given the circumstances? By the time we can grapple with that, we are at the Armitage’s estate and confronted with the hired black help and Rose’s father’s uncomfortable comments about the couple and a strange throwaway about how Rose’s grandfather was beaten by Jesse Owens to compete in the Berlin Olympics. Is he just making dad jokes or is he foreshadowing something more sinister? Before we can get to the bottom of it, we are dealing with Chris's unresolved guilt over his mother's death, menacing hypnotherapy sessions, a truly strange backyard barbecue, and Chris’s increasing paranoia around too many white people.
Daniel Kaluuya as Chris and Alison Williams as Rose are perfectly cast and bring a sincerity and reality to their performances that ground the film. Directors and producers of horror and other genre films should take note of this. When you have a story as out there as Get Out’s (and it gets pretty far out there), you have to rely on the actors to make your story feel real. If we don’t care about the characters, we don’t care about the story, regardless of how fantastic it may be. In fact, the reverse is true: the more outrageous the story, the more you need competent, natural actors to give you a sense of stability and an emotional connection. Kaluuya and Williams provide this in abundance. Their young romance, stressed by a family encounter and some uncomfortable but everyday racism, is believable and relatable. Rose’s constant lampshading of the police and her own family’s racist remarks and attitudes feel familiar, as do Chris’s perfunctory and subtle (and not-so-subtle) deflections.
The supporting cast is just as strong with performances by the always funny Bradley Whitford as Rose’s father Dean, Catherine Keener as a devilishly unnerving hypnotherapist and Rose’s mother, and finally Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend and TSA agent Rob. Howery steals the show with his hilarious, over the top, and genuinely touching performance as Chris’s buddy who turns into the main investigative force as Chris contends with the increasing paranoia and insanity of the Armitage’s estate.
I have found myself returning again and again to the striking title track: Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga. Composer Michael Abels combines a plucky, minor-chord inflected banjo with whispered Swahili, imploring us to “[watch] your back. Something’s coming, and it ain’t good.” The track recalls the Bayou and plays under disjointed shots of dying fall trees. You don’t need to understand Swahili to know that something bad is coming. The rest of the score serves the film equally well, from the lovely but slightly melancholy “love theme” for Chris and Rose to the punctuated, driving horns and bass that carry us through the action scenes.
I don’t want to spoil Get Out, so I will not go any further than the trailer does. Something is going on with a rich white family, hypnosis and brainwashed black people. The truth that Peele unveils in the third act is a twist and a strange one at that, but it is not altogether unexpected and it feels at home in this film. Peele’s writing and direction–so spot on for a freshman effort–coupled with the adept performances of Kaluuya, Williams and the entire supporting cast make everything believable, even as the tension and insanity ratchet up scene after scene.
Get Out functions in some ways like modern conspiracy theories. The dark core of the plot is a man with a plan. There is a comfort in knowing that there's a hand behind the crazy actions in our world, however invisible it may be. And there's something to be done. Plug your ears, grab a weapon, steal a car and hope Rod’s TSA skills can handle. Conspiracy theories satisfy our natural urge to explain the unexplainable. Unfortunately, the world is not a clockwork machine and things like structural inequality and inherent bias, while all too real, are not the products of a single mind and cannot be defeated by a single, dedicated hero.
I have almost† no complaints about Get Out. It is singularly well-made from top to bottom. From the direction to the performances, the story to the score there is almost nothing wrong with Get Out. The only knock against the film is that it is too real and will make audiences, black and white, face uncomfortable thoughts about their society and themselves.
After the movie while waiting for the subway, a black man came up to me, smiling. He asked about my new headphones, complimented me on my tie and then invited me to a Bible Study. I politely declined and made sure to get on the next car from him, unable to hide my discomfort. My head was still swimming with the thoughts that Peele had implanted and I couldn’t help but wonder: who felt more uncomfortable during this exchange? And if someone had been brainwashed was it him or was it me?
† OK, I can’t help myself: the Microsoft product marketing is over the top. Sure, maybe some people have Surface tablets and I guess there are three or four Windows Phones still in circulation. But a Bing, search? Really?