On possession, perspective, and grand displays of empathy with secretly grim motives
Get Out Universal Pictures
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, LilRel Howery, Caleb Landry Jones, Lakeith Stanfield, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson and Stephen Root
Rated R / 1 hour, 43 minutes / 2.35:1
February 24, 2017
(out of four)
There's a good deal of truth in that famous Vonnegut quote from Mother Night - "We are what we pretend to be ... " Get Out, meanwhile, is an elegant refutation of it.
Jordan Peele's directorial debut features layers upon layers of pretend - façades on top of façades, consciousnesses on top of consciousnesses. The very notion of who someone is ... well, it's an open question. For some characters it's a matter of interpretation. For others, decorum. Or strategy. Or self-preservation.
But no, Rose Armitage - the attractive young white woman with the wealthy, progressive background - insists: her parents are the real thing. Committed to progressive values. Accepting, tolerant. Totally not racist at all, don't worry. But you can see why she might need to reassure her boyfriend, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who's about to meet the parents for the first time. There's an awareness there that Rose, no matter how well-meaning, will never quite understand. Sure, she might say - might, in fact, believe - that of course her parents have no problem with her having an African-American boyfriend. But Chris will - must - go in with his guard up and his eyes wide open. Lots of people say they're lots of things when all they have to do is say so.
And judging by the elliptical opening scene - in which a young black man (Atlanta and Short Term 12 standout Lakeith Stanfield) lost and wandering in a sleepy suburban neighborhood gets quite unceremoniously abducted by a mysterious figure - Chris' intuitive apprehension may be even more prescient than he knows.
But those dots will connect later on. For now, it's on to the big weekend - meeting the parents and the brother and, as a bonus surprise, all the Armitage family's wealthy white friends - not to mention their mysteriously docile black sidekicks, servants, lovers. And just as Rose (Allison Williams) promised, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) are the picture of awareness, compassion, and liberal white guilt. Those of us on the left might quickly get a painful twinge of recognition - in our social circles if not in ourselves - at their sense of overenthusiastic, performative progressivism. They go out of their way to inform Chris that they voted for Obama, and talk about how important Jesse Owens' triumph in front of Hitler was, and turn the conversation immediately to Tiger Woods when the subject of golf comes up.
Of course, to Rose, they're just dorky parents trying too hard to make Chris feel welcome. As for Chris, he can't quite hide that perceptive smirk that assures us he can see through them. Not that he feels they're malevolent in any way, but he's had these conversations and been down these awkward social roads before. Probably too many times to count.
But if they're hiding anything (and, of course, they are), they do a damn fine job covering it up. Because they're so outwardly aware of their privilege, they are constantly trying - and to some degree, succeeding - to put Chris at ease. When Dean - a successful neurosurgeon - feels a hint of Chris' skepticism at the fact that the all-white Armitage family has black maids and groundskeepers, he's up-front about what a bad look that is. He "gets it." Sure he does. Incidentally, given Stanfield's small but crucial role in the film, the opening scenes at the Armitage estate are reminiscent of the Juneteenth episode of Atlanta, in which the series leads played by Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz attend a party at the house of an interracial couple, and Glover's character proceeds to get overenthusiastically lectured about African culture and history by the overcompensating white husband who owns the place. The scenes between the two (with Glover and Rick Holmes playing off each other wonderfully) are funny in a deeply uncomfortable way that only one of the two characters is even remotely aware of. Moments between Chris and Dean in Get Out strike a similar, equally resonant chord, the big difference being that Dean makes a point of insisting that he knows exactly what Chris must think about all of this.
He's right, up to a point. But then again, he's been through this more times than he lets on. "Naive" is one of the things Dean is pretending to be, and as Chris horrifyingly discovers, he and Missy are anything but that. Shoulda listened to his friend Rod (LilRel Howery, in a really great supporting turn that goes beyond the simple requirement of comic relief), who was more than a little skeptical of the whole weekend trip in the first place, going so far as to offer a variety of wild conspiracy theories to keep Chris on his toes. It's one of the film's many great commentaries that Rod's ideas - rather than simply playing as comedy - are not only not as far-fetched as we assume, but perhaps don't go far enough.
Whether during the five seasons of Key & Peele, his written work on other shows and films (including last year's Keanu) or in interviews throughout his career, Peele has always seemed very cinematically inclined - and in particular inclined toward horror. So it houldn't come as a surprise that he quickly made the move behind the camera, nor that his debut is a sociopolitically sharp, satirical horror film. What's impressive is how he avoids certain tendencies of so many first-time filmmakers - like their propensity to lean too much on homage and influence while their own voices are still developing. Peele is certainly well-versed in his predecessors and inspirations, but Get Out very much feels like the product of an artist with a fully formed voice.
The film comes along at a particularly interesting time, in that its ideas intersect with so many things relevant to modern lives and social climates - deliberately by Peele in some cases, incidentally in others. This is not a film about the internet, but it does parallel the fundamental nature of it, in that so much of online culture is rooted in the way we present ourselves - how we wish to appear, what is our real self vs. the self we decide to be in the semi-public eye. We are all so good. We are having so much fun. Our intentions are so noble. We believe and understand all of the right things. No doubt Dean and Missy Armitage's social-media accounts would be full of all the right platitudes and memes. (Just be careful if they invite you over.)
In a more obvious sense, Get Out dovetails with more direct and prominent concerns about the autonomy, possession, destruction and exploitation of black bodies (that very subject famously given new, urgent voice in Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, a book that Dean and Missy Armitage no doubt rushed out to read and then gushed about on their Facebook pages). The apathy toward their mistreatment and disappearance and death. The indifference toward their preservation, not only at the hands of police but anyone with a degree of power - physical, political, or, in the case of the Armitage matriarch, psychological. That such issues are so often ignored - certain exemplifications only just recently becoming mainstream talking points in the wake of the high-profile deaths murders of Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Garland, etc. - is a fact the film is keenly aware of, even if it doesn't state the obvious by name. The film is clever enough not to need to underline everything, but its unspoken ironies are bountiful. To the villains unmasked over the course of the film, black lives matter to them, too - just not in the way they say.
Get Out is smart, but it's even smarter than it seems, peppered throughout with little details that have one apparent meaning but actually a totally different relevance that remains largely unspoken. Even its big scene of exposition is done with creative, unnerving flair; it certainly registers as exposition, but an entertaining one in that it plays that information off the precarious situation of its central character, so there's more going on emotionally and psychologically than in any other typical information dump.
The film lays a shrewd satirical framework almost invisibly at times, buried under a propulsive thriller that works well in its own right. I'll nibble around the details as much as I can, but there are two really savage jokes in play here that operate almost entirely without explication. One involves a severe, calculated lack of empathy that plays directly into the broader themes Peele is already playing with; the other is an omission of perspective that leaves an ironically haunting cloud over everything when it's all said and done.
It's one thing to possess a social or ethical consciousness - then again, this film would be most wary of those who are overly ostentatious in their displays of awareness - but quite another to express it the way Peele has, which is not in didactic terms but experiential ones that work on different, conflicting versions of consciousness itself. Get Out is an outstanding paranoid thriller propelled by the beating heart of satirical wisdom.