The spirit of Ira Levin is alive and well in “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s impressive feature debut as a writer-director. Levin was best known for novels like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives,” chilling little tales in which a seemingly posh and prosperous community was hiding something truly terrifying.
That’s the vibe that Peele nails so successfully. On their sketch show “Key & Peele,” he and comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key were masters at finding the humor in the uncomfortable gulf between male and female, black and white, gay and straight, nerdy and cool; here, there’s a similar mining of everyday absurdities and injustice, only it’s in the service of a tightly-wound horror film.
In the same way that “The Stepford Wives” exploited liberated feminists’ fear of male chauvinists’ fear of liberated feminists, “Get Out” finds its tension in black people’s fear of white people’s fear of black people.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, “Sicario”) is a black photographer who’s a little nervous about meeting the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams, “Girls”), despite the fact that she’s enlightened enough to chew out a cop who asks for Chris’s ID after Rose hits a deer on their drive to her lakefront home. (After “The Invitation” and “A Cure for Wellness,” this makes the third thriller in the last year where a car hits a deer in the first ten minutes; it’s now officially a trend.)
Rose’s doctor parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford), and her med-student brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones, “X-Men: First Class”) are cordial enough, although they eventually unleash a torrent of microagressions: Dean can’t stop calling Chris “my man,” and Jeremy suggests that with some gym training, Chris’s “genetic makeup” would make him a “beast” in MMA.
Those familial faux pas aren’t the only thing making Chris uncomfortable: what’s up with the glacial stares from the family’s black staff members Georgina (Betty Gabriel, “Good Girls Revolt”) and Walter (Marcus Henderson, “Pete’s Dragon”)? Why the strange behavior from the elderly white guests at the house party? And who’s the guy (Lakeith Stanfield, “Short Term 12”) who looks so familiar to Chris, but is dressing and behaving so strangely?
Generally, when a thriller is built on a “Something Strange Is Happening Here” plot, once the Something Strange is revealed, it’s time to wrap things up. It’s a testament to Peele’s storytelling skills that even after we know exactly what’s going on, we’re still engaged by the characters and by what else is going to happen. Editor Gregory Plotkin, best known for his work on the “Paranormal Activity” films, does standout work here, in both the micro — setting up specific jump-scare moments — and the macro — pacing the story, never letting the momentum drag, maintaining the tension even as we cut away from Chris to his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery, “The Carmichael Show”), who’s suspicious about this entire trip.
Peele never sledgehammers his ideas about race, but blackness and whiteness both drive the plot and provide a constant source of tension over the course of the film. It’s potent satire that’s very much about America in 2017; call it post-“post-racial.” And any thin-skinned white viewers who complain about how Caucasians are treated in the movie are invited to go read some Donald Bogle, write a book report, and get over it.
Two scenes involving the police put a somewhat fine point upon it, but Chris never really gets to relax; he’s in an affluent white world, and while no one’s ever outright hostile, he constantly feels on display and subject to judgment. (Even in a purportedly liberal household: Rose accurately predicts that Dean will mention how he wishes he could have voted for Obama a third time.) Peele delicately weaves in notions of white supremacy, eugenics and racial symbolism in ways that don’t call attention to themselves, but they’re there for those with eyes to see.
Kaluuya makes a great everyman, expressing panic in small and subtle ways, but a movie like this always belongs to the people with shadowy motivations, so it’s Whitford and especially Keener, both playing with their screen image, who make the biggest impact. (Thanks to Keener and the film’s sound team, you’ll never hear a spoon scraping the side of a teacup the same way again.)
It’s a little on the nose to cast Landry Jones in a sinister role; he’s capable of being straightforward and charming in a film like John Boorman’s “Queen & Country,” but he’s also currently the go-to for directors who want a character with shifty eyes and a sweaty brow. Wiliams keeps the audience guessing, but the ultimate secret weapon of “Get Out” is the hilarious Howery, who walks off with every scene that’s not nailed down.
Once the Something Terrible is revealed, Peele and Plotkin and cinematographer Toby Oliver (“Wolf Creek 2”) don’t make the usual horror moves; they slow down instead of speeding up, using longer takes and brightly-lit rooms to make the grim reality even more frightening. The satirical tension gives way to an unbearable calm, and while there’s still humor, the last act remains breathlessly exciting and tense.
Jordan Peele has made an extraordinary leap in genre here, and he’s also crafted a horror film that has more blistering observations about race than half a dozen well-intentioned Oscar-bait dramas. “Get Out” is one of the very few films that’s ever going to be compared with both “You’re Next” and “13th,” and it heralds the arrival of a very promising new filmmaker.