By: Glynis Neely
I think it’s time we officially ushered in the indie renaissance of horror, and crowned Get Out as it’s most brilliant entry yet. Jordan Peele’s impressive film debut has gotten rave reviews and is one of the few films to hold the coveted hundred percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes on it’s first opening weekend (It’s still at 99%). Though Peele is known for his comedy work as half of the duo Key & Peele, his directorial debut is decidedly darker. It may seem out of his wheelhouse, but I didn’t have any doubts about his ability to craft an unsettling and thought provoking film. Comedy and horror are similar in their attempt to make you react to their content in a certain way; sometimes they want to scare you and other times they want you to laugh, or both. Peele found the perfect balance between the two genres and his fingerprints are all over the film – from the biting social commentary in the writing to the innovative and distinctly black musical influences in the score.
The first scene opens in a suburban neighborhood as a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) walks uneasily down the dimly lit streets. It’s reminiscent of countless scenes in other horror films, only it’s usually someone white walking through a rough black neighborhood. He tells someone on the phone how sketchy he feels in that neighborhood. Protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) expresses a similar sentiment later on when he says; “I always get nervous when they’re too many white people around.” It turns out he is rightfully spooked when a car slowly pulls up beside him; before he can react, he is knocked out from behind and thrown in the trunk of the car. During the climax, another moment upends our expectations of what’s about to happen, only to delight us rather than disappoint. The racist tropes continue to get skewered and turned on their head all the way through to the end.
Opening the film is one of the most unsettling themes I’ve heard in horror recently. Set against a car as it drives down the road through a forest of trees, it’s a dark, bluesy song with African influences; an eerie female voice sings in both Swahili and English. The song, entitled “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” by Michael Abels, sets the stage for the tone of the film as the credits pass onscreen. In an interview Peele shed some light on how essential the lyrics are to the film, distilling a warning to Chris: “’Brother, brother,’ in English, and then something to the effect of, ‘Watch your back. Something’s coming, and it ain’t good.'” From here on out, nothing is safe.
So when the theme cuts out abruptly and a new song begins, the first couple of notes have me so excited when I realize they chose the song “Redbone,” off Childish Gambino’s new album “Awaken, My Love.” I haven’t been able to get the song out of my head since it came out, but it occurred to me in that moment how perfect the lyrics were for this film. The chorus could very well be a tagline for the film itself: “But stay woke / Nigga’s creepin’ / They goin’ find you / Goin’ catch you sleepin / So stay woke.’” In an interview, Gambino said the song embodies the music he grew up around as a child and that to him it feels both “sexual and scary,” which is not a bad description of the tone of the movie itself.
The film’s plot is straightforward enough so the social commentary is weaved seamlessly throughout. Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) invites her photographer boyfriend Chris to take a trip to meet her parents and spend a weekend at their house. She assures him that her parents won’t be bothered that their daughter is dating a black man, but he is familiar with refined racism and does not arrive without his guard up. After arriving, he experiences an almost non-stop parade of micro aggressions from the white suburbanites he is forced to be nice to for the weekend.
Rose’s father Dean, played by the always brilliant Bradley Whitford, seems genial enough but immediately starts calling Chris “my man” and is eager to know all about him and his daughter’s relationship. Her mother Missy (Catherine Keener) is a quiet, but intense hypnotist. As the weekend goes on, Chris can tell something is off with these people, but he chalks it up to run of the mill racism from anti-racist presenting neo-liberals. The servants however, and any other black person he encounters, speak as though they came from a time where respectability politics were still popular. They have an unsettling, hostile demeanor that puts Chris on edge, and it turns out for good reason, but Chris doesn’t put the pieces together until it’s almost too late.
Chris’s best friend Rod (LilRel Howery) is tasked with caring for his dog back home and senses something is wrong as soon as Chris doesn’t come back from the weekend. While there are plenty of tension-releasing moments with the Armitage’s, Rod is primarily the main source of humor in the film and the audience surrogate; he says most of the things we are thinking the entire time. The horror in the film is not overwhelming, but Rod’s character provides the type of levity we crave in this genre.
Like many horror films that came before it, the story unfolds through a filtered, socially conscious lens, which I hope can be the start of a thought-provoking conversation we need to have in our culture. Peele has mentioned that he plans on making four more socially conscious horror films in the next decade; we could definitely use the enlightening dialogue. This movie is so important to our cultural awakening right now, that I urge everyone to go out and see it. My one suggestion for future installments would be to keep less of the movie in the trailer. While I enjoyed the film and was still shocked by the twist at the end, so many of the incredibly creepy parts were already in the trailer that I’d seen plenty of times. And yet despite the first third containing a lot of scenes from the trailer, the final third is so surprising and innovative it was absolutely worth the price of admission.
While it is a successful horror on its own, the social commentary adds another layer of brilliance to the narrative. Peele gathered an excellent cast for the film that was more than up to the task of bringing this story to life. Kaluuya’s studied performance was especially paramount to the movie’s success, especially his animated, wide eyes, his expressions saying so much without him saying a word. The brilliant work doesn’t end there, as the entire cast is impressive. I would recommend this movie to anyone who wants to enjoy a masterful thriller that does not shy away from confronting headlong the issues many in society would rather ignore.