Key & Peele is arguably the peak of the sketch comedy show. The brainchild of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key was always funny and subversive, but its sense of cinema is what elevated it above its contemporaries. The show would use genre tropes and archaic production values in order immerse us into sketches that could be twisted, even disturbing.
Their affection for horror and action movies is borderline obsessive – some sketches eclipsed their subject – so it’s hardly a surprise that Jordan Peele’s gravitates behind the camera, not in front of it. Get Out, Peele’s feature-length horror debut, has all the barbs of his best sketches, and a lot more. The film is a wicked black comedy, with a well-earned payoff and a palpable sense of anger.
The most entertaining kind of film criticism is to make another film in response. Peele must be frustrated with most horror nowadays, since Get Out has a familiar architecture, hitting obvious beats until it turns the genre on its head. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young, mild-mannered black man who’s still in the honeymoon phrase with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Chris is about to meet Rose’s parents, and they leave New York City for a remote mansion upstate.
Missy (Catherine) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) are welcoming enough, although they carry themselves like aging Boomers who never had a black friend. Aside from Chris, the only other black people are Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), the hired help. Something seems off, and Chris must figure out the secret before he loses much more than parental approval.
From the first scene onward, Chris is sensitive to how racial slights have varying degrees of hostility. Missy and Dean treat Chris with more careful deference than they might give a white boyfriend, while Rose stubbornly refuses to admit that Chris’ skin color makes no difference. This is a riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the seminal 60s film that made tolerance a virtue instead of a given. Peele turns those screws so we’re unsure where the comedy ends and the horror begins. The levity comes from Chris’ best friend Rod (LilRel Howery), a TSA agent who’s watching the dog for the weekend. Rod is the only character who offers anything resembling common sense, and since he’s also the comic relief, he functions like a chorus for Chris’ escalating nightmare.
Get Out is the sort of horror film where it’s better if you know as little as possible before going into it. Peele uses the same inexorable logic from his sketches, and deepens them with character development and a specific, insidious form of white-on-black racism. This form has its roots in history, as it must, but it manifests itself through modern biases of privilege and ability. Get Out does not rely on gore or cheap gotcha scares. Peele instead plays his audience with long takes, bizarre production design, and deliberate editing to provoke a potable cocktail of suspense and comic unease. The actors are pitch-perfect, though the stand-outs are Kaluuya, who handles a challenging leading role with ease, and Williams, whose turn as Rose won’t surprise anyone who’s been keeping up with Girls.
Eddie Murphy has a bit from Raw where he talks about how black people would never stay in a haunted house. He even uses the phrase “get out” as his punchline. Get Out indeed gives Chris many opportunities to leave the mansion, as if Murphy is Chris’ conscience, and yet manners dictate that Chris must fight his instincts – to the audience’s escalating distress. Race relations haven’t moved that far ahead – not yet, anyway – and Peele seem to think it would be easier if we all admitted that. It would certainly be easier for Chris, who finally has what was denied from so many black characters in horror films: the chance to survive, to experience terror, and to exact deliciously cold vengeance.