Fans are often skeptical when their favorite artist attempts to experiment in a new genre. Jordan Peele has always been known for comedy, specifically Comedy Central’s Key and Peele sketch comedy show. The success of Key and Peele is primarily attributed to a brand of comedy that skewers social and cultural conventions (like all great sketch comedy does) and is willing to “cross the line” to make a joke and, more importantly, when it comes to satire, make a point. Although Peele’s directorial debut happens to come from the world of horror and not comedy, Get Out is an impressive and successful first film from the director, that is able to scare audiences while also delivering bitting social commentary about the perception of race in America.
It would have been very easy for Peele to create a horror film that dealt with overt racism. It also would have been a very succesful and yet unoriginal debut. Instead of tackling the standard “red neck” horror tropes that would inevitably lead to torture, jump scares, and an easy lesson in the dehumanization that racism allows, Peele thankfully decided to be more adventerous and controversial.
Peele’s “monsters” in this horror film are not Deliverance-style back woods types that we are used to seeing on screen; they are instead well-dressed and manicured neo-liberals with a rather sinister agenda. These are wealthy aristrocrats with not only an admiration for African-Americans, but a deep-seated envy and desire to become them, without giving up their own elitist ways. The best example of this is the “cool dad” Dean Armitage (played by Cabin in the Woods Bradley Whitford). Dean is the type of guy who enjoys “collecting” treasures from a wide range of exotic cultures (such as his candlesticks from Bali) and displaying them as a sign of worldliness. What this type of “collecting” presents is just the opposite however in the form of the co-opting of native cultures for personal ornamentaion and a shield against accusations of “White privilege”. In essence. Mr. Ambrose is saying “I may be a wealthy White man but I am ‘down’ with indigenous people!”
The set-up for the film is very simple: Rose Armitage (played by Allison Williams of HBO’s Girls) wants to bring her boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya of Sicario) home to meet the parents. What starts out as contemporary riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, quickly veers towards the paranoia-fueled stories of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Eyes Wide Shut (Peele’s admiration for Stanley Kubrick is clearly evident in the film from a subtle “hedge maze” reference that opens the movie, to more stylistic choices that are actually reminiscent of The Shining in terms of camera movement and the score).
The paranoia and psychological terror is provided primarily by Catherine Keener’s Missy Armitage. The mother of the Armitage clan is just as dangerous (if not more so) as her husband, but she approaches her quarry in a different fashion. Instead of appealing to Chris’ trusting nature with out-dated slang and praise for former President Obama, Missy is the one who knows what’s best for Chris in terms of his “dirty” smoking habit. Missy represents the other side of the neo-liberal coin: the politician who wants what’s best for you, whether you want it or not. Whether it is regulating what size soda you can purchase at movie theater in New York City or what charter school you need to attend, she embodies all the worst characteristics of the evil mother figure and neo- liberal crusader. Her expertise with hypnosis is the way that she enacts her change, mystifying her victims and making them truly believe that she wants what is best for them (hiding her ulterior motives of profit and exploitation).
Another aspect of Peele’s subtext does an excellent job of destroying the “White savoir” archetype which includes everyone from To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch to The Help’s Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. In Get Out, the main character doesn’t need saving; he is ingenious and crafty enough to save himself in a world that is stacked against him (in a few memorable scenes at the end of the film, the protagonist is even able to turn some of the trappings of their high society enclosure against them). The only help that Chris receives is from his best friend Rod (the very funny Milton “Lil Rel” Howery) who, like Chris, is the character who has (mostly) figured out the conspiracy, yet no one will believe him, even a room full of African-American police officers.
Viewers who don’t pick up on the subtext of Get Out will probably still enjoy this film as it is an intelligent, witty, and original take on the “stranger in strange land” motif, but ticket buyers who don’t leave their “thinking caps” (which is a subtle reference to the only gory scene in the film) at the door will have a much richer experience than they can usually expect out of a contemporary horror film.