Jordan Peele is best known as one half of the popular comedic duo Key and Peele. Who, after igniting an infectious chemistry together over five seasons as regular cast members of MADtv, moved on to co-create and star in their own eponymous sketch series on Comedy Central and produce a feature film together. The latter project, a fast-paced comedy titled Keanu, follows the unlikely pair as they pose as drug-dealing gangsters in an outlandish effort to retrieve a stolen cat. It would be somewhat understandable then if, due to the entirely tongue in cheek nature of Peele’s prior work, some audiences members expect Get Out, his directorial debut and first solo effort as a screenwriter, to continue in much the same vein.
The truth, however, is that it is difficult to imagine a much starker departure from the traditionally light-hearted fare that the comic is normally associated with. Get Out is a strained, suspenseful and socially conscious satire which although eventually veering into territories both gut wrenching and gruesome remains a consistently self-aware and genre evasive commentary on both contemporary racism and the tried and tested conventions of the horror film.
The film’s narrative sets itself up as a twisted, racially charged version of Meet The Parents. Professional photographer Chris Washington (Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Williams) have reached the four month milestone in their relationship and, to mark the occasion, decide to take a weekend trip to the Armitage family estate so that Chris can finally meet her parents. Chris is, however, nervous that Rose hasn’t told them in advance that he is a black man. She dismisses his concerns out of hand, assuring him that her liberal, upper class white parents could hardly be less racist and that they certainly ‘would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could’. And, as she insisted, Chris’ fears do seem unfounded upon his arrival at the Armitage home as Rose’s folks Dean (Whitford) and Missy (Keener) welcome him with open arms, joking cheerily at their daughter’s expense and taking the time to give him an extensive tour of the property.
While, initially at least, the weekend plays out as well as it might be expected it isn’t long before Chris starts to notice some unnerving peculiarities surrounding the family’s neighbourhood and their attitudes toward him – causing his overtly polite exterior to soon succumb to an overriding sense of panic.
The major strength of Get Out lies in Peele’s writing, which takes a daring central concept – Kaluuya has called the film ’12 Years a Slave: the Horror Movie’ – and makes it work without ever seeming low-brow or crude. The script is tight and well paced, seamlessly moving through a traditional three-act structure with a fluidity which makes the film’s 104 minute runtime somehow feel like even less.
There is more than a hint of Anton Chekhov to the screenplay, which is light on exposition and heavy on foreshadowing and callbacks. The Russian playwright famously wrote that ‘if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired it shouldn’t be hanging there’. Peele’s script is similarly frugal – many of the visual and dialogue details hold hidden meaning and anything that is seen and said throughout the narrative is liable to come back into play as it progresses. The only issue with this conservative approach to storytelling is that it does, on occasion, feel as if the film is holding back too much by embracing a bare-bones style. This is especially evident in a third act twist which, despite having been built up to throughout the film, isn’t really given a satisfactory explanation which would make the motivations behind it fully register on an emotional, rather than on a rational, level.
That being said, Peele’s method is very effective in first capturing and then holding onto audience engagement. While the story’s central beats aren’t all that difficult to see coming a lot of its appeal is borne out of watching just how the plot unfolds rather than its unpredictability.
The film’s strong script is supported by slick cinematography and engaging performances from its ensemble cast. DP Tony Oliver’s polished compositions rely heavily on close-ups to capture characters’ emotions and intentions while the well choreographed movements of the frame allows the camera to become a character in its own right, cleverly ensuring that the cinemagoer is always the last to see important visual prompts in their entirety. In terms of acting Kaluuya is the standout here, with the Skins and Black Mirror alum taking to his first major feature film starring role with aplomb.
The nature of the narrative places Chris at the centre of nearly every major scene, meaning that the responsibility of carrying the emotional weight of the film falls squarely on Kaluuya’s shoulders. Get Out acts as a firm demonstration of his emotional range as an actor and points to a bright future for the young star. Special mention must also be reserved for Lil Rel Howerey, who appears as Chris’ best friend and comic relief character Rod. Howerey’s role in the picture revolves almost entirely around making the audience laugh – something he manages to do every time he appears onscreen. He provides a very welcome relief from the ominous atmosphere that shrouds most of our time spent with the Armitages. Rod is consistently hilarious throughout the story, serving to continuously break the tension and belie Poole’s comedic history.
The only real bone to pick with Get Out is that it isn’t firm enough in it’s satirical delivery, unsure whether to embrace a political stance or fall back entirely on its roots in the horror genre. It does neither, with the narrative’s early beats carrying ripples of scithing commentary on racism in the society of post-racial America before mostly dropping these thoughtful, timely truth bombs to instead rely on gasps and gore in its final third. This is not a crippling gripe though. Get Out remains a thoroughly enjoyable thriller as well as a daring and inventive breath of fresh air for the already thriving independent horror scene. And, on top of all this, it may just be the work that best defines Jordan Peele the artist. Certainly a departure from rescuing cats then.
Director: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Lil Rel Howery
CT Rating: 4 stars out of 5
David Deignan Film & TV Editor