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Get Out: Racial subtext intensifies smart thrills

In Get Out, Jordan Peele peels down the greasepaint on liberal racism in America by interweaving its political subtext into a smart horror flick.

An interracial couple, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), plans to visit Rose’s parents after five—four is wrong—months dating. While Chris is nervous about him being black, Rose insists they are not racist. With this affirmation, Chris agrees to go. When they arrive at the Armitage estate, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) graciously welcome them. However, Chris soon senses an awkward, distressing atmosphere from people around, including handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel). Little by little, Chris is cautious of the malevolence creeping up on him.

Comedy fans might be already familiar with Jordan Peele, a half of the duo Key & Peele with their sketch series on Comedy Central, and enjoy their absurdly fun feature Keanu from last year. Here, this actor/writer is more capable than just comedy. Inspired by classics like *The Stepford Wives *and Rosemary’s Baby, the first-time director channelled his own awkward experience as an African-American amongst white people to create Get Out, whose premise for a comedy envelops the real terror. He wrote the story during Obama’s term after a large part of American society thought they were living the post-racial era, where races shouldn’t matter as much as before, or at all. This is Peele’s artistic projection of an underlying tension between black people and the emerging white liberals—a focused scope because he wouldn’t reflect a larger theme without compromising the narrative structure.

Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams

Get Out opens with a brilliant one-take of a young black man, later known as Andre Hayworth (LaKeith Stanfield), walking in the dead of night in a maze-like neighborhood (a reference to The Shining). This sets the itching anxiety that will slowly wrap around our minds by introducing the basic case of suspense: confusion and helplessness. It then moves to our lead character and propels the racial theme as we look inside Chris’ house—Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” playing in the background. Chris is an aspiring photographer, whose works include black-and-white daily life snapshots (“so brutal, so melancholic,” as a character comments) of New York. His photographs show the contrast between light and shadow, with a shade of gray in between, implying the racial topic. Confidently, Get Out takes its time to pick up the pace and ease us in while leaving the unease to leak through settings and dialogues.

Others hints about what’s coming to Chris are smart and well-arranged. At first, even with his girlfriend, Chris still can’t openly talk about his inconvenience. That’s a start. On the way to their suburban manse, the tense encounter with a roadkill—deer are a running metaphor in the movie—and a police officer predicts this trip won’t turn out well. Next, we see the Armitages’ household in a warm color palette, which deceptively relaxes our awareness so Dean’s zealous hospitality could ramp it up to utter agitation. Something is troublesome inside this liberal family, whose late patriarch lost the race of Olympic ’36 to Jesse Owens, a black American athlete. Here, Dean plays a more aggressive role in leading Chris into their sinister scheme by creating a cringeworthy feeling through his mannerism. Meanwhile, Missy is much more easygoing, sometimes a bit embarrassed by her husband, which makes Chris unknowingly slip into their plan.

As known from a dreamlike sequence in the trailer, Missy hypnotizes Chris and tells him to “Sink into the floor!” This scene successfully sets up two pivotal aspects: to give Chris a sympathetic feeling of self-inflicted guilt and to show audiences how much of a menace Missy really is. Peele and DP Tony Oliver executed this surreal scene with artfully immersive elements on an intriguing concept: The Sunken Place. Missy’s method of hypnotism tricks its victims, not through their eyes, but then lets them become the eye-witnesses to horrific acts committed all through a rectangular window, which substitutes their optical visions. Perceiving his drowning—minus the asphyxiation, Chris couldn’t ask for help because his voice is unheard. This visual treat has its own powerful metaphor: symbolizing the fear of black people in recent cases of modern racism by engulfing Chris with despair and powerlessness. Get Out’s first half includes many complementary foreshadowings about the threat.

A great deleted shot, as seen from the trailer

Unapologetically straightforward and coherent, the plot moves along with Chris’ growing insecurity. The subsequent party scene continues to impress by toying with our concern for Chris. The guests appear intimidating when they plainly treat Chris like an item of merchandise. There must be a wicked, deadly force coming after him. Get out, Chris! But fortunately, the movie has its own brilliant way to warn our likable lead before assuring us it’s about to go down in the nastiest way possible. At the end of the second act, the big reveal is relatively expository, and the movie faintly shifts from a psychological horror to a survival thriller. Still, little pieces of information pay off later in crucial, plausible moments.

This is the directorial debut of Peele, so he shows humbleness by being hands-on in his own clever method; initially, the cast was instructed to get ahold of their characters’ feelings and motivation, so they improvised a lot, according to Kaluuya. The result is a fresh experience for horror fans intensified by incredible acting. Against horror cliché, Kaluuya (from “Fifteen Million Merits”—one of the best Black Mirror episodes) makes Chris feel like a normal human being with emotional depth, intellectual, and rational thinking, and the story shows his choices as influenced by a shadow in his past. Whitford and Keener bring proper wit to their character, and Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) as Rose’s brother looks like a real psychopath to the point of insanity. As Rose, the flexible Williams (Girls) is more than just fitting as her character gradually reveals her true color. On the good guys’ side, Lil Rel Howery portrays Rod as a remarkable comic relief by inserting frantic analysis that is exactly what we are thinking but couldn’t make out the words as humorous as he does.

Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener

Set in a Northern state, the movie does satirically criticize racism, just not the overt racism based on disgusting prejudice against black people and the stereotypical redneck/hillbilly discrimination targeted by the recent progressive movements. Instead, these white liberals only see black people as a set of desirable traits, not as fully-realized people with emotions and consciousness of their own. With a talented cast and those well-hidden messages, Peele peeled down the greasepaint on unconsciously hypocritical Democrats and tackled racial issues in America by interweaving its political subtext into a smart horror flick that achieves more than just scares and surprises.