Science-fiction and horror have long served as vehicles for social commentary, and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is a particularly biting example, as well as one that shows his gift for humor. Funny, creepy and thought-provoking at the same time, it’s a picture that transcends mere genre pigeonholing to become an outstanding blend of different elements.
That doesn’t mean it’s entirely original. One has to wonder whether Peele is a fan of Brian Yuzna’s 1989 “Society” and Wes Craven’s 1991 “The People Under the Stairs,” since there are echoes of both here. To their post-Reagan critique of socio-economic disparity, however, Peele adds a strong dose of racial politics, beginning with an opening prologue, reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin incident: Logan, a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) who’s searching for an address as he walks through a suburb at night, is abducted by an unseen fellow driving a white sports car. Viewers will encounter both the victim and the car again before long.
Cut to the city, where Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), an up-and-coming photographer, is getting ready for a first meeting with the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) at their elegant rustic home. There’s a bit of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” at work as Chris frets that Rose hasn’t told them that he’s black, but when they arrive—after an unhappy encounter with a deer on the road that reveals some casual racism on the part of the cop called in to investigate—Dean (Bradley Whitford, a neurosurgeon, and Missy (Catherine Keener), a therapist, couldn’t seem more welcoming, at least on the surface. To be sure, their comments reveal that they’re bending over backwards in oversensitivity to the situation, and Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is more abrasive, especially after he has a few at dinner. The unsettling behavior of the Armitages’ black staff—groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel), both of whom seem strangely addled—is also troubling.
Still, apart from Missy’s insistence on hypnotizing Chris to rid him of his addiction to cigarettes, all seems reasonably unthreatening until the next day, when a bevy of the Armitages’ friends arrive for an outdoor party. The affluent, almost completely white crowd seem incapable of talking with Chris without making some horrible gaffe—with the exception of blind art expert Jim Hunter (Stephen Root), who greatly admires his work. But the appearance of a much-changed Logan among the guests begins to reveal what dark secret is lurking beneath the apparently placid surface of the Armitage family estate.
It wouldn’t be fair to disclose what the secret is, or precisely how it centers on Chris. Suffice it to say that “Get Out” morphs gradually from weirdly off-kilter social satire to full-fledged horror in a way that suggests Peele’s appreciation not only of Yuzna’s “Society” but of Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” (which Yuzna produced) as well. The final reels include a good deal of violence and bloodletting while avoiding the over-the-top grossness that afflicts so many genre pictures nowadays, and one has to appreciate the care with which the script ties up the various threads that it has arranged over the course of the plot; this is one puzzle that actually fits together in the end.
Overemphasizing the horror elements of the picture, moreover, would downplay the fact that it also elicits plenty of chuckles and outright laughs. Many, especially in the early going, take aim at the absurdity of weak-kneed liberalism that pretends that ours is a post-racial society; Dean’s attempt to prove his bona fides by emphasizing that he voted for Obama is just the first of such well-meaning blunders. But there are also the periodic scenes stolen by Milton “Lil Rel” Howery as Rod, the best friend who regularly phones Chris to warn him, with a hysteria that comes to be quite reasonable, of the dangers of going to visit a white family. The fact that Rod is a TSA employee with delusions of grandeur—a fact made clear in a scene in which he visits the police to ask for their help in locating his friend—makes him all the more absurd, and amusing.
Peele secures expert performances from his cast, with Kaluuya anchoring the picture by playing Chris as an agreeable, anxious-to-please guy who becomes increasingly aware that he’s in imminent danger, and Williams making the most of a major character turn. Whitford and Keener bring an appropriate measure of not-quite-rightness to her parents, and Root adds a touch of malicious glee to his blind art dealer. Gabriel, Henderson and Stanfield are happily unafraid to go from creepily subdued to broadly over-the-top in the space of seconds, while Jones is suitably vile.
For a modestly-budgeted production—something typical of Blumhouse releases—“Get Out” looks fine, with widescreen cinematography by Toby Oliver that’s surprisingly traditional and slick editing by Gregory Plotkin. Michael Abels’ score, meanwhile, pretty much makes a joke of the “gotcha” moments that are part of the horror canon, like the sudden appearance of the deer and another quick-moving figure in early scenes, to which it adds a goofy shriek.
“Keanu,” Peele’s earlier movie with his erstwhile TV partner Keegan-Michael Key, might not have been a winner, but “Get Out” hits the bull’s-eye dead on.