Sunday, March 5, 2017

Review: Get Out (2017)

Get Out (2017)

Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references

Score: 5 out of 5

It seems like it was only yesterday when the horror genre was the black sheep of Hollywood. The big horror trend of the late '90s, led by Scream, was post-modernism, which in this case meant films that referenced, poked fun at, and satirized all the most tired tropes of the genre as it existed back then. In the '00s, horror was a Hollywood cash cow thanks to the remake and torture crazes, but it was not a respectable one by a long shot. Film critics and genre fans alike bemoaned how so many horror films were mindless spectacles aimed solely at providing cheap thrills for teenagers who didn't know any better, either sanitized to a PG-13 rating or conversely packed with gore at the expense of plot. You had to look to other countries, like France, Sweden, and Japan, to find modern horror films that broke new ground and pushed boundaries with both horrifying violence and unsettling subtext. Things started to change in the early '10s when vintage-styled throwbacks like Insidious and The Conjuring won acclaim and mainstream success, but under the surface in the indie scene, even bigger things were happening. I honestly believe, looking back on it five years later, that The Cabin in the Woods may just be the most influential and important horror film of the decade, not just for burying the old teen movie tropes once and for all, but for practically daring filmmakers to go out there and make the films that they wanted to, without caring a whit about what studios, critics, or fans demanded. The most talked-about horror films in the last few years have been independent and/or low-budget efforts like The BabadookIt FollowsThe Witch, The Neon Demon, and other films that, while clearly inspired by the classics, broke sharply from tradition and flew in the face of everything that a modern horror movie was supposed to be (often, ironically, as a direct result of their classic horror inspirations), damn what anybody said. They used the horror genre as a way to comment on social, cultural, and personal issues that included sexual assault, managing grief, marriage, religious oppression, beauty standards, and more, in ways that were often more intelligent and thoughtful than in more self-consciously "weighty" films. There are still your usual stinkers, but horror nowadays is in something of a golden age.

I'm personally gonna enjoy it while it lasts. And if Get Out is any indication, it might well be here for a while.

Get Out marks the filmmaking debut of writer/director Jordan Peele, otherwise best known for his comedy work with Keegan-Michael Key on the Comedy Central show Key & Peele, and what a debut it is. It is one of the smartest explorations of race relations in modern America that I've seen in a long time, all wrapped in an intense, slow-burn chiller that plays out like a nightmare combo of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Rosemary's Baby, and The Stepford Wives, running less on jump scares and more on mounting tension as we, and the protagonist, start to realize that there is something very wrong with the smiling, upper-class family he's staying with. It's a horror film that Chris Rock or Eddie Murphy would joke about as the sort of horror film that black people would make -- but while it's got a deep streak of comedy woven in (as befitting Peele), it is otherwise very serious, and as pointed as a dagger in its satire. We're barely two months into 2017, and a February release is already one of my contenders for the best films of the year.

Our protagonists are Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), a young couple getting ready to meet Rose's parents out in the suburbs. Rose is white and Chris is black, so Chris expects some awkwardness, but he finds that Rose's parents Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) are in fact quite approving of their relationship. They seem friendly and agreeably liberal in their first encounter, albeit understandably clueless about black culture; any offense they cause is more ignorance than hatred. It isn't long, however, before Chris starts to notice some quirks about the Armitages. Their black housekeepers Georgina and Walter act like they just arrived from Stepford, while one night, Missy hypnotizes him in order to help him kick his smoking habit. A neighborhood get-together sees another perpetually-smiling black man arrive, one who Chris' friend, the TSA officer Rodney, tells him is a childhood friend of theirs who went missing six months ago. Before long, Chris realizes that the Armitages' pleasant exterior hides a dark secret, and he, Rodney, and Rose plot his escape from the gilded suburban cage.

The thing that's immediately apparent is that the racism here isn't the in-your-face sort that you normally see in "issue movies" like Crash or American History X, or in lackadaisically-moderated comment sections on news articles about Chicago. That sort of movie would be a good old-fashioned slasher or torture porn movie about white people (trailer-trash rednecks like in Deliverance or upper-crust sport hunters like in Hostel, take your pick) getting their rocks off on killing black folks, and that is not the sort of movie that Get Out aspires to be. Many things can be said about the villains Dean and Missy, but bigoted, surprisingly, isn't one of them. They go out of their way to be accommodating to Chris, treating him like family almost from the moment he steps through their door. No, their racism is of the less visible, more condescending sort, the type that hides behind a friendly face and nice-sounding platitudes and doesn't think that it's doing anything wrong. It becomes most apparent in the scene where the neighbors come over, as all of them are complimenting him on his physique, telling him how much they love Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, and otherwise singing the praises of black culture, all in a manner that seems to ignore Chris' actual thoughts and the fact that he's a human being first and a black man second. It's the sort of racism that thinks it's being cool to people of color yet doesn't realize that it's robbing them of their humanity, the sort that produces cultural appropriation, the perpetuation of stereotypes, and laughable attempts to "reach out" to the "urban community". The big reveal in the third act as to what's actually going on drives it home and takes the idea to its logical conclusion, with black people literally having their lives stolen from them.

And just as the racism on display is subtle, only peeking through in the moments when the mask slips, the horror is as well. The first two acts are spent teasing the viewer with indications that something is wrong, like the strange behavior of Georgina and Walter, causing what seems like innocently insensitive statements from Dean, Missy, and their neighbors to take on more ominous tones. Chris may not be facing burning crosses and nooses, but through the actions of those around him, he grows very self-conscious of his blackness as he is made to feel like an "other" in their society. I mentioned Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives earlier, with Peele himself citing the former as an influence, and it is readily apparent in how the film treats Chris' progressive loss of agency in the new world he's been dragged into, albeit with race instead of gender as the factor marking him as a target. Peele uses vintage visual tricks and musical cues to build this atmosphere, keeping the jump scares to a minimum and deploying them at their most effective moments while taking time to build suspense and an unsettling atmosphere around them. While he may not be as stylish as William Friedkin, James Wan, or Roman Polanski, he's still crafted an impressive piece of work on its technical merits alone.

Even more impressively, he did this while also weaving in a streak of (pardon the pun) black comedy of the sort that he and his TV partner Keegan-Michael Key are famous for. This is most apparent with Rodney, Chris' best friend who fancies himself a detective because he's stopping terrorism for the TSA. He realizes that something's up about Chris and Rose's predicament, but is laughably off the mark as to what's actually going on; he's convinced that it's a sexual slavery ring where black folks are brainwashed for kinky sex games out of Eyes Wide Shut, and not the even more disturbing truth. The thing keeping it grounded is that, even though he is a hilarious character thanks to a great performance by stand-up comic Lil Rel Howery, Rodney himself isn't treated as a joke, and in fact winds up being a much-needed ally over the course of the film as he cracks the case despite his superiors in the TSA laughing at him. Many of the clueless comments made towards Chris are also played for comedy on the surface, playing straight into stereotypes of black men even as the people making them try desperately to avoid seeming racist. It's not dissimilar from the racial satire seen on Key & Peele, only here, it's being used as a mask for something more insidious. The humor is deftly integrated with the horror, never overtaking the film but instead playing into its themes and serving the plot and characters rather than the other way around. It reminded me a lot of Scream, another film that, while humorous, was very much a horror film first, a satire as a close second, and a comedy as a distant third.

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams are outstanding as the protagonists Chris and Rose, whose interracial relationship becomes the fault line of the new world they find themselves inhabiting. I was introduced to Kaluuya by way of the great Black Mirror episode "Fifteen Million Merits" (speaking of horror serving as a vehicle for social commentary), and he is no less brilliant here as a man fighting to save himself. His American accent was spot-on, and he deftly conveys Chris' slow realization that something is wrong, from his initial suspicions to his horrified reaction to the truth. Allison Williams likewise has a ton to do as Rose, Chris' supportive girlfriend who plays her own very significant role in the story, and turns out to have a lot more going on under the surface than she appears to. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener make for great antagonists as Dean and Missy, their pleasant, if ignorant, demeanor hiding something quite nasty, but which they seem to genuinely think is for the greater good.

The Bottom Line:

An incisive satire of race relations that's also an amazing throwback to paranoid horror films of decades past, Get Out is timely, well-made, and terrifying, and has set a very high bar for the rest of the year's horror films.

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