Saturday Features

Fear and loathing in suburbia

  • In Get Out, writer-director Jordan Peele has crafted a film that pays loving homage to the horror-thriller canon, while at the same time delivering pointed, darkly-funny social satire
The commentary is especially incisive in the first half: Peele’s portrayal of microaggressions, particularly on the part of self-proclaimed “progressives”is keenly-observed, thought-provoking, and the source of most of the laughs

Mar 18, 2017-Photographer Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is in a bit of a bind. He’s been seeing girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a good five months now, long enough that she wants him to meet her parents, spend a couple of days at their place. Problem is, Rose hasn’t told her folks that Chris is black, and he’s already dreading their reactions when they find out, certain that they won’t approve—even though Rose promises him that it won’t matter. You see, mum and dad had voted for Obama twice, and would’ve done so a third time if they could. “The love is so real,” she drawls by way of reassurance.

True to Rose’s word, when they arrive at the Armitages’ sprawling suburban estate, her parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) don’t so much as bat an eyelid, enveloping him in big bear hugs. Still, Chris is unable to relax. Because it soon becomes apparent that Rose’s parents—along with their friends, whom he meets at a garden party—are trying too damn hard to show that they’re not bigots, to prove their colourblindness. But beneath that veneer of self-congratulatory liberal acceptance, there is an undercurrent of prejudice and condescension—whether it’s the guy who won’t stop talking to him about Tiger Woods or the group of middle-aged oldies who would like him to elaborate on the “African-American experience”—making Chris possibly even more uneasy than if they’d been openly hostile.

What’s more, the few black peoplehe does come across are acting very, very odd—overly polite, talking in eerily calm tones, strained smiles plastered on their faces. Although Chris is naturally wigged out by all this, he’s also unable to put his finger on what’s really going on: Are these old folks actually racist or is he over-reacting to some awkward, but ultimately well-meaning attempts at making him feel welcome? Is something sinister afoot, like his instincts are telling him, or is he just not used to this sort of all-white company?

Get Out is the first feature film to be helmed by Jordan Peele, one half of the duo behind the popular Comedy Central sketch comedy series Key & Peele, and well, it’s one hell of a debut. Peele has crafted here a film that pays loving homage to the horror-thriller canon, while at the same time delivering pointed, darkly-funny social satire. Indeed, the writer-director is able to employ genre conventions to whip up some effective moments of suspense and shock, but, in the process, also manages to cleverly overturn racial stereotypes—instead of the black man being the threat to the white neighbourhood, for instance, it’s the white neighbourhood that’s a threat to the black man.

It’s fitting that Get Out should exist now, at a time when illusions of a “post-racial” America have been steadily dismantled. The commentary is especially incisive in the film’s first half: Peele’s portrayal of microaggressions, particularly on the part of self-proclaimed “progressives” who like to think of themselves as having transcended such notions as blackness and whiteness, but who nevertheless continue to harbour deep-set biases, is keenly-observed, thought-provoking, and also the source of most of the laughs. Even as he mines the awkwardness of conversations between Chris and Rose’s family for humour, he’s reminding us that racism persists in more ways than we might realise, that these slights and snubs, as good-natured as they might seem, are symptoms of wider, more dangerous predilections, and that such small attacks are possibly all the more damaging for being so invisible.

Instead of delivering his message in the form of a sanctimonious lecture, though, Peele has wisely chosen to package it within familiar horror tropes, so that the transitions back and forth—that is, between the discomfort of watching Chris struggle to make sense of his interactions with these strangers, and the scares wrought from more conventional thriller elements—are practically seamless. His love of the genre comes through clearly, allowing him to both rely on well-worn devices while giving these a little satirical twist here, a little comical turn there at the same time, to drum up a sense of—if not unpredictability per se—freshness, at the very least. The build up is skillfully structured, the jump-scares few and effective, and the comedy—rather than offering respite from the tension the way it is normally deployed to do—is offbeat enough that it actually adds to the suspense.  

Besides a taut screenplay, Get Out also benefits from a largely pitch-perfect cast. British actor Kaluuya, last seen in 2015’s Sicario and the TV series Babylon, has a sort of carefully maintained placidity about him that well-fits the role of a man trying to constantly hose down his inner turmoil, someone practiced in maintaining his cool even when his buttons are being pushed—and who’s learned to pick his battles. And Williams, known most for playingone of the leads on HBO’s Girls, might feel a bit iffy as a choice to play Rose at first, but it all makes sense by the end of the film, by which time she’ll have grown on you many-fold. As her parents, Keener and Whitford are spot on, clearly having fun getting to ham it up a little, and they are offered reliable company by other supporting actors, most notably Betty Gabriel portraying a Stepford Wife-esque housekeeper. The only stints that jar somewhat are those by Lil Rel Howery and Caleb Landry Jones—the former just not gelling at all with the overall tone of the film and the latter just too exaggerated to be convincing.

After a time, if you’ve watched enough of these kinds of films, you’ll probably be able to guess where things are headed in Get Out, and that might cut into your enjoyment a little bit, particularly of the expectedly bloody final third. But it’s Peele’s subversions of formula throughout—canny nods to the tangible and intangible horrors constricting black lives in Amer-ica—that make it all worth your while.

Published: 18-03-2017 09:05

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