Sunday, June 25, 2017

Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson, LaKeith Stanfield, Stephen Root
Running Time: 103 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The scariest, most frighteningly realistic part of Jordan Peele's Get Out comes early, uncomfortably zeroing in on certain stupid things that certain white people say to black people in conversations to "prove" they're not racist. With every little action and comment you squirm since their obliviousness knows no bounds, terminally unaware of how ridiculous and ignorant they sound. Some of them are probably your friends, co-workers, teachers, neighbors or family members. And on occasion, I'm willing to bet those offenders have even included you and I. It would probably be insulting to suggest that the first sixty minutes of this horror thriller places anyone in the shoes of a black man being judged by the friends and family of his white girlfriend, but it does sure give us an eye-opening idea of what he'd have to put up with. That so much of this is subtle, even subliminal, to someone not consciously looking, is possibly its most unsettling aspect.

While making no mistake about the fact that Get Out is first and foremost a damning social commentary on racial tensions in America, what's been somewhat lost in the conversation is how slyly and expertly the comedian Peele (making his directorial debut) plays that hand. That is until he doesn't have to anymore, and audiences' worst fears, heavily hinted at from the very first frame, eventually come to fruition. Even with plenty of clues where this is going, it's still kind of jaw-dropping just how far Peele's willing to take this, to the point that you wonder how a project this socially, racially and politically charged even got the go-ahead.  You could quibble about where the plot eventually ends up, but good luck finding fault in how it arrives there, building genuine terror and suspense the entire way through. "Originality" isn't a word thrown around too often these days and while there are a few familiar genre elements at play, that definitely applies here.

When black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) takes a trip with his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time, she confides in him that she hasn't revealed to them his race and doubts it will be an issue. Described by Rose as open and accepting people, neurosurgeon Dean (Bradley Whitford) and psychiatrist Missy (Catherine Keener) warmly welcome Chris into their home and, almost right off the bat, something seems off. Whether it be Dean's overly enthusiastic boasting of having wanted Obama elected to a third term, his defensive explanation of why all the hired help is black, or Missy's insistence on hypnotizing Chris, it appears any concerns of not fitting in might be the least of his problems.

It only gets stranger from there, with an uncomfortable encounter with Rose's drunk, unstable brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), offensive interrogations from party guests, and the black live-in housekeeper Georgina (a brilliantly creepy Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) behaving like zombies. Confiding his suspicions by phone to best friend and TSA agent, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), Chris realizes he's walked into something very bad, and while he wants to stay to support Rose, common sense tells him he can't get out soon enough, as what starts as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? very quickly devolves into Guess Who's Coming to Hell?

It may not be completely apparent until the final credits just how carefully the story is set up, playing on real-life anxieties and prejudices to draw the viewer in, as for much of its running length, the people and situations Chris encounters at the Armitage house are not only steeped heavily in realism, but painfully uncomfortable to watch. It's a key component that all these interactions, as disturbingly strange as they are, aren't so outright hostile that even he initially chalks it up to paranoia or nerves. It's easy to imagine an alternate director's cut of all these scenes that heavily emphasize that since Peele's ability to let audience's see through the protagonist's eyes at the true extent of this ignorant behavior is one of his script's greatest strengths. It's at work through every interaction at that house, whether it be a houseguest trying to chat Chris up about Tiger Woods or Rose's brother's obsession with his athletic abilities, even challenging him to a fight in one of many cringe-worthy dinner table moments.

Through much of this, Chris is about as good and patient a sport as anyone could be under some pretty degrading circumstances, and little known English actor Daniel Kaluuya skillfully walks a really tight rope, trying to remain calm in the midst of deplorable treatment masking itself as mildly disingenuous hospitality. It slowly gets to him, attempting to put on a solid front for Rose, played by Allison Williams as essentially the ideal girlfriend, even as the relationship eventually carries with it this unspoken racist implication that he'd be an idiot to screw it up, almost as if he should consider himself "'lucky" to land someone like her. In other words, don't rock the boat because you're the one being judged. All these racial overtones and undertones just keep building, boiling to the surface when the narrative bomb is dropped and a full-blown, insane explanation is given for what we've been seeing.

By the time Peele shows his cards and it's clear what's happening (the details of which land somewhere between A Clockwork Orange, The Stepford Wives and Soylent Green), a shift has to come, and how well he pulls off this transition is what will make or break the movie for many. Mostly, it's a seamless one due to the fact that we've been pulling so hard for this protagonist since he walked into an already awkward situation with the best of intentions, realizing it's now a fight for  survival. And once it is, you'll again be scratching your head at how this was even made to begin with, and yet somehow Peele pulls it off, juggling sci-fi, horror, comedy and socially conscious drama as deftly as possible considering the unexplored thematic terrain.

Given how many different things are attempted, this all remains fairly consistent right up until and including the final scene, which frightens in much the same way the rest of the film does, just in a more literal context. It cleverly reminds us, in even the most extreme situations, how justified the protagonist's fear is, and how stagnantly ingrained society's view of him is. By masquerading as a horror film, before fully evolving into one, it's able to explore and tackle timely issues that could otherwise play as as a preachy sermon under more traditional circumstances. Instead, we get something that pushes the envelope just far enough to leave a lasting imprint. How much of one will have to bare itself out in subsequent viewings, which is something Get Out proves more than worthy of.  

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