Horror films aren’t the first genre that comes to mind when thinking about film as social commentary, certainly not in the current climate of cheap horror ideas, cheaper remakes and repetitive sequels. This is exactly the intention though of writer/director Jordan Peele, whose debut film ‘Get Out’ is one of the most well-received films (let alone horror films) in years. Superbly crafted, remarkably intelligent and genuinely arresting, this critical and commercial smash hit is a potent reminder of just what this genre is capable of.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, 'Sicario', 'Kick-Ass 2') is going away for the weekend with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams, TV's 'Girls') to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) for the first time. He’s a bit concerned about the fact Rose hasn’t told them that he's black, but upon meeting Mr and Mrs Armitage, he doesn’t appear to have anything to worry about. They receive him with warmth and enthusiasm... maybe a bit too much enthusiasm...
The timing for ‘Get Out’ could not be more perfect, released in the wake of the Oscar success of ‘Moonlight’ and as awareness of the continued mistreatment and marginalisation of the African American community in the U.S. continues to grow. Where Peele directs his camera though isn’t where you would expect, and rather than exploring racial tensions in the expected places (like an uneducated community in the Deep South, for example), he looks at an aspect far more unusual, and yet just as unsettling. The Armitage family treat Chris with an open awareness and liberal understanding that borders on fetishism, so that the issue isn’t their dismissal of him but their overzealous enthusiasm for him. The circumstances might be different, but this is still essentially a person of colour being seen as an object, Peele highlighting that overt, enthusiastic and uneducated liberalism can be just as racist as outright violence and mistreatment. Chris is still not seen as a legitimate person, but in this instance something to be coveted as opposed to destroyed. This makes its commentary on racism unexpectedly more chilling than anything in ’12 Years A Slave’ or ‘The Birth of a Nation’ simply by turning its critical eye on the very people films like that are made to feel more comfortable, the ones that go so they can say they’ve gone in order to announce how sympathetic and understanding they are and absolve their sense of privilege. In many ways, this makes ‘Get Out’ more pointed, unforgiving and necessary.
The social commentary may set ‘Get Out’ apart from its horror contemporaries, but what makes it extraordinary is how it weaves that commentary into an exemplary piece of horror filmmaking. Peele never loses sight of making it as entertaining, nail-biting and even as ridiculous as he can. His razor-sharp screenplay and immense directorial command result in a film of impeccable craft, a darkly comic and seething chamber piece filled with haunting, unsettling images. There’s a Hitchcockian singularity to his vision, and every carefully placed beat works to maximum effect. It breathes where it needs to, adds a dash of comedy when it needs to, and unlike most studio horror films which go for cheap and quick jump-scares, it earns its horror, slowly ramping up the tension until the film explodes into bloody chaos. Toby Oliver’s cinematography is remarkable, another reminder of the potential for beauty in horror, and of the importance of the cinematography as an aspect of its storytelling. It makes use as much of the negative space around the actors as the framing of the actors themselves, the constant feeling of being watched amplified by the awareness of the potential for that negative space to reveal something. This feels like a classical horror film in so many ways, a fact that’s made abundantly clear with Michael Abels’ beautifully unsettling, Hermann-esque score. From the moment it begins, it’s clear that ‘Get Out’ is the work of artists confident and aware in what they are doing, and this is what sets a great horror film apart. The more you get the feeling the people behind the camera know what they’re doing, the more unsettled you become at the possibilities.
From the moment it begins, it’s clear that ‘Get Out’ is the work of artists confident and aware in what they are doing, and this is what sets a great horror film apart.
Peele also brings together a terrific ensemble of actors, all of whom are acutely aware of the tone needed to make the film work. Whiford and Keener play the Armitages with gleeful sense of self-awareness, somewhere between comedy and psychosis. Even more unnerving are the black supporting cast, especially Marcus Henderson and (in a truly extraordinary performance) Betty Gabriel as their gardener and housekeeper Walter and Georgia. They deliver the most complex and unnerving performances, ones that hold the gruesome secrets to unlocking the film itself. Allison Williams brings her easy and natural charm to Rose that balances out her parents, but the glue holding the film together is Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, the everyman stuck in the middle of the ever-tightening noose. Chris strays from the typical tropes of the horror victim, sharply aware of something awry and genuinely active as a protagonist, so that when he finally finds himself in peril, it is all the more affecting because he is all the more human. The superb cast is rounded off with Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ friend Rod, who begins as necessary comic relief before become integral to any chance of Chris surviving.
‘Get Out’ is a film we’ll be talking about for many, many years to come, for many, many reasons. Its contribution to both horror cinema and the creative possibilities of the medium as social commentary are enormous, all the better by also just being a damn great piece of filmmaking. If it can maintain momentum this year, it could get the Oscar attention it rightly deserves. Jordan Peele has delivered a powerhouse feature film debut, demonstrating his mastery of his craft and his powers as an entertainer and educator. ‘Get Out’ is an absolutely exemplary, wickedly funny, genuinely unnerving and often flat-out terrifying instant horror classic, so delectable that you almost wish it wouldn’t end.