Why are black people usually the first to die in horror movies?
Some think that it’s a harmless trope, or perhaps an enduring coincidence. “Get Out” is here to argue that it’s the result of ideologies that perpetuate systemic racism throughout American society. What better way to make that point than taking on the form of a horror film itself?
“Get Out” is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, half of the comedic duo Key and Peele. Their eponymous sketch comedy show found moderate success in infusing genre parodies with racial statements. Sometimes cleverly provocative and other times relishing cheap shots, the friends’ skits were decidedly hit or miss over the years, but they were always high-concept. Peele’s new horror takes concept playfulness to its natural end by embracing the genre altogether.
It certainly walks the walk: “Get Out” is shot, paced and scored (the music choices are delightfully disturbing) like the best of its predecessors, evoking their careful creepiness without feeling like a reference checklist. But it has a bit of trouble talking the talk. The classics wove social commentary into horror subliminally: George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead” is scary at first because of hordes of merciless zombies, opening up a fear channel between audiences and the undead. Later one realizes that the soulless masses represent slaves to consumerism, and fear of a capitalist system travels down that channel.
The plot of “Get Out” — which involves black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) traveling to suburbia with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her racially insensitive family — steps out of the shadows too early to pull off such sophisticated trickery with its metaphors. It is so clear, so immediately, that Rose’s family is steeped in sinister purposes. Caleb Landry Jones’ excessive performance as Rose’s brother doesn’t help at all. Great horror films often utilize ‘das unheimliche’: a German term meaning ‘the uncanny’. It describes something that is familiar enough to identify with and understand, but ever so slightly off enough to make us anxious. The family and its related parties leap over this line hastily: obviously these outlandish people exist to get a message across.
This robs the racial statements of subtlety — but not of bravery. The upside to the movie’s plain goal is its boldness: “Get Out” calls out the fragility of whiteness and the presumed ‘threat’ of blackness with crossed arms and furrowed brow, never afraid to offend and always avoiding any other interpretation.
When the film has said what it wants to say and starts to close out its story, the entertainment factor ramps up significantly. The third act of “Get Out” has vicious fun imitating its inspirations — but with smarter characters. It’s cheer-worthy to see a protagonist make sensible choices in a horror movie. Peele has heard your cries of “don’t go in there!” and gives you reasons to excitedly shout the opposite.
And of course, the question on everyone’s mind: is it scary? No. I felt maybe two moments of genuine fear, and that’s generous. It works as an intelligent thriller more than a horror. But “Get Out” is the brainchild of Jordan Peele, so it is funny! Comedian Lil Rel Howery is hilarious as Chris’ best friend and there are multiple moments of Peele doing what he does best: satirizing a film genre. What “Get Out” lacks in scares it makes up for in laughs — and blunt commentary on race.
★★★½ (3.5 out of 5)