“Why us? Huh? Why black people?”
In Danse Macabre, about the 1975 horror film The Stepford Wives (to which Get Out is certainly a spiritual successor), Stephen King wrote: “Men, the film says, do not want women; they want robots with sex organs.” Get Out answers a similar question by concluding that what white folks want with black people is the same thing they wanted in the age of slavery: their bodies. That’s all that matters. And for the rest? The sunken place. If the whites want to stay on top, they gotta keep the black man down.
A small but well-crafted film, Get Out is interesting primarily for its unique thematic subject. But almost more interesting is simply that this is the directorial debut of Jordan Peele (he also wrote the film), whose career up until this point encompassed the excellent sketch show Key & Peele and the forgettable comedy vehicle Keanu. Comedy and horror are often two sides of the same coin; there’s a fine line between slapstick and gore, for instance. Here the connecting emotion is discomfort. Peele takes what could easily be a sitcom premise, a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, the culture clash of the black kid and the well-to-do white family, and dials up the social discomfort to 11, into the realm of suspense and horror.
How does Peele accomplish this? Much of the film’s effect comes down to performance. As Chris, the boyfriend, Daniel Kaluuya demonstrates the kind of peculiar talent some actors exhibit of getting us on his side immediately. By the time Chris and Rose (Allison Williams of Girls) are stopped by the police a few minutes into the film, you’re already dreading what a white cop might do to him. It’s a tense scene, emotionally layered, and it’s equally compelling when the characters later unpack those emotions themselves–Rose’s discomfort at seeing Chris play it humble with the cop, Chris being impressed by the way she stands up for him. For us as well as for them, the scene serves to turn the two into a real unit, something Chris will rely on later in more disconcerting circumstances. Likewise, Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents, the Armitages (a Lovecraft reference?), straddle a complex line for the first hour or so of the film between being supportive parents who accept their daughter’s new boyfriend and failing to hide an amusingly/concerningly awkward species of racial anxiety about the black elephant in the room. No one else in the film is given this level of nuance to perform (except possibly Stephen Root), although they fulfill their roles in the film perfectly adequately. But the main four are enough to draw us into the stultifying atmosphere of Chris’ uncomfortable weekend in unfamiliar surroundings. Although Get Out does its best to alleviate boredom by dropping a series of increasingly unsubtle hints about what’s really going on here (unsubtle enough that Chris’ friend Rod [Lil Rel Howery] pretty much guesses the plot over the phone), the best technique it uses to ratchet up the tension is simply by unfolding this awkward little chamber drama between its players. Chris tries to be polite; the Armitages try and fail to avoid racially charged avenues of conversation; Rose is embarrassed; rinse, repeat, as the disparity between Rose’s family and their strange servants continues to disturb.
But the other reason to be impressed by the direction is the way Peele manages to impart leaps of revelation entirely through visual storytelling. The moment when the viewer realizes that Whitford’s patriarch is holding a silent slave auction is a gut punch of horror. We knew it was bad–if nothing else, the two black servants Chris meets seem seriously disturbed–but we didn’t quite realize it was this bad until this moment. That’s not the only instance of the film doing this, either. In Rose’s mother’s first hypnotism session, when Chris finds himself plummeting into “the sunken place,” we too feel the drop; likewise, when Rose’s lies are revealed, and again when we learn the identities of the people in those servants’ bodies. Again and again the film hits us with the kind of cleverly constructed “Oh shit” moments that lead to reviewer quotes like ‘crowd-pleaser’ and ‘roller coaster thrill ride!’ on the backs of video boxes. Such turns don’t happen by accident, but are the result of scripting, editing, and direction. They’re another part of what makes the film a fun, smart horror movie.
But they’re not what make it truly special. For that, we do have to turn now to what Get Out has to say about race, and even more importantly what its place is in the genre.
What the film is saying about white people is easy. Get Out is almost gleefully reductive on this score. If you’re black, white people are out to get you. Especially rich white people. Especially if they tell you how much they really, really liked Obama. (“By the way, I–I woulda voted for Obama for a third term, if I could.” No mention of just how Dean did vote, though…) And the ability to see and understand this is also partly divided on racial lines. Chris is merely suspicious, even when talking to Rose about some of the things that have happened to him here; but his black friend Rod jumps almost immediately to “brainwashed sex slaves,” which is not so far off the mark. Even the characters who break this pattern only demonstrate the necessity of a strict species of racial paranoia, as when the black police officers laugh Rod and his outlandish story out of the room. Wake up, people! Don’t trust anyone under 30% melanin.
As an outlook, it’s not nuanced, it’s not complicated, it confirms your worst fears. And that’s okay, in a horror movie! It’s no different from the way movies have taught us to fear showers, or backwoods cabins, or children’s dolls. Get Out wants to appeal to the deep down alligator brain that knows the world is out to get us, that knows the only solution is simply to, well, leave. And if necessary, kill any white motherfucker between you and the door.
If there is a little nuance there, it’s only in the idea that “positive” racism is just as harmful underneath. Whether false or sincere, the Armitages’ (including the extended family) awkward praise of African-Americans for their physical prowess, their cultural cool factor, and so on, is ultimately about judging their value as an object of plunder–about whether Chris, specifically, will make a good host-body for them. Likewise, Rose isn’t really Chris’ ally, no matter how progressive it might seem for her to date a black man or side with him against her family when things get uncomfortable. She seems to fetishize her relationships with African-Americans, keeping photos of her former black lovers and black friends in a box like a set of trophies. Rose doesn’t just relish her role as the bait, luring people in for her family to steal, but appears to take a special pleasure in seeming like the kind of girl who would be with a guy like Chris.
Finally, there’s Root’s character, a blind art gallery owner named Jim who is symbolically race-blind; he denies any racial motivation for his actions, and has no explanation for Chris’ crucial question about why men like him have been targeted. (We never get a firm answer from anyone, in fact, but there are several possibilities, from Rose’s preferences to her father’s account of how his father lost a chance to compete in the Olympics to Jesse Owens.) Jim is the only white person in the film who values Chris for a quality unrelated to his race, Chris’ artistic eye for photography. But Jim also wants Chris’ physical eyes so he can see again. Earlier in the film, Jim acts as a welcome counterpoint to the socially awkward extended family. They judge Chris entirely on his race, which is offensive to Chris even though their comments are on the surface positive. We sense Chris’ relief when Jim compliments him for his artistic skill instead. But underlying Jim’s assessment 0f Chris’ abilities is, again, the desire to snatch the young man’s body away from him, and the pain when Chris learns of that betrayal is almost as strong in its own way as the Rose revelation. In a weird way Jim is the worst person in the film, because racism often comes from a place of ignorance–or even animus. Jim doesn’t hate black people and he doesn’t hate Chris. He just doesn’t care about Chris enough to not want to steal his body. Morally, Jim’s eyes are wide open, and he makes the wrong choice anyway. That’s evil.
Patronizing compliments, fake allies, and poseur progressivism are all lies to Get Out, and all of them stem from a fundamentally sociopathic view in which blacks do not possess humanity. That’s just as damaging and horrifying (and perhaps even more insidious) than an open Klan rally. This is all simple enough, boiling down to variations on “these fucking white people.” But what the film has to say about the black person’s role in this toxic environment of polite, brutal white racism is a little more subtle–and bound up in the soul of Get Out as a horror film itself.
The secret is in the deer. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that the early scene where Chris and Rose hit and kill a deer while driving to the Armitage home is not a minor incident whose only purpose is to provide a quick scare to keep up the film’s tone and momentum; it’s a crucial symbolic element of Chris’ character arc and its corresponding theme. Two monologues establish the importance of the animal. First, Dean Armitage describes his thoughts on the dead deer:
Well, you know what I say? I say one down, a couple hundred thousand to go. […] No, I don’t mean to get on my high horse, but I’m tellin’ ya, I do not like the deer, I’m sick of it, they’re taking over. They’re like rats. They’re destroying the ecosystem. I see a dead deer on the side of the road, I think to myself, that’s a start.
It’s a speech reminiscent of one given by Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds:
Now, if one were to determine what attribute the German people share with a beast, it would be the cunning and the predatory instinct of a hawk. But if one were to determine what attributes the Jews share with a beast, it would be that of the rat. […] You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them; all you know is you find them repulsive.
And if we don’t understand its significance in the moment, we certainly will on a second viewing, when the dark comedy of the film’s dramatic irony is in full view. (Consider what Dean says to Chris when he meets Georgina: “My mother loved her kitchen, so we keep a piece of her in here,” and then remind yourself which piece they ended up keeping.)
The deer gains significance again in a second monologue, this time by Chris, as he relates to Rose a traumatic memory Rose’s mother has used during hypnosis to break through Chris’ mental defenses. Chris’ own mother was killed when he was young, hit by a car and left dying in the street while Chris remained home alone, the boy too paralyzed with fear to look for her or call for help when she failed to return. It’s that feeling of paralysis and helplessness that Missy Armitage taps into during her session with Chris, and it’s the sorrow and guilt he felt then that brings him to weep silently whenever she puts him under control. Earlier in the film, we didn’t understand what it meant to Chris when he looked at the deer they had hit; now the parallel is clear.
“I just sat there. I was just watching TV,” Chris says, describing the night his mother died. And that’s where he finds himself once the Armitages have truly captured him: sitting in a chair, strapped down, watching Jim on a vintage television explain what it’ll be like once Dean completes the procedure. “You won’t be gone, not completely,” says Jim. “A sliver of you will still be in there. Limited consciousness. You’ll be able to see and hear what your body is doing, but your existence will be as a passenger. An audience.” In other words, Chris will become a passive observer, trapped in the sunken place, staring up at a screen as events unfold without his ability to control them. In front of him in the TV room, a stag head is mounted; like Chris, it’s a hunting trophy.
But if the film has been all tension up until now, the remaining 15 minutes are a violent release triggered by Chris’ symbolic turn. At his lowest point, trapped in front of the television physically, emotionally, mentally, in memory, Chris suddenly discovers that the nervous tic stemming from his anxiety is actually what will save him. And once he’s free of the Armitages’ control, Chris’ escape is a matter of turning the family’s own weapons against them. Rose’s brother, who had needled Chris about sports, gets a bocce ball to the cranium; when Missy stabs Chris with a letter opener he uses the same blade on her; and most significantly, Chris kills Dean by impaling him with the horns of the stag head. What had been a symbol of Chris’ utter reduction to, literally, a stolen head, is now the means of his escape. If getting out is the crucial imperative, the film argues that the way for African-Americans to escape the horrors of white supremacy is to use their past trauma as motivation to cease being passive victims and instead reclaim their agency.
If that crowning moment weren’t enough of an object lesson, there’s one more parable left along this theme. Fleeing the Armitage house in a car, Chris hits Georgina, another trapped servant. Remembering his mother’s death once again, Chris is unable to resist picking the wounded woman up off the road, to try and rescue her. But it turns out she’s still a victim of the white woman controlling her. In contrast, the other servant, Walter, breaks out of his spell and makes some decisions for himself, with the help of Rose’s rifle. The moral of the story? You can’t make progress until you choose to take action. Chris finally learns the lesson with Rose. Even if he can’t bring himself to kill her, he doesn’t save her. She dies on the forest road. And white or black, you can’t help but think to yourself, that’s a start.
Get Out is itself an act of reclamation, of taking back the genre for a new audience (which brought the film to massive and welcome success). Horror has always traded on absolutes, and maybe that’s why it so often ends up about regressive ideas. Fear of culture clashes, of the city, of the heartland. Fear of the Other. It’s only fair that the genre got an example of that from the black perspective. The movie’s final twist demonstrates just how powerfully the film has put you in the mindset of racial paranoia. After all Chris has gone through trying to escape, a cop car discovers him in the road with a dying Rose, and there’s a moment of perfect horror in the anticipation of what will happen next. We realize that Chris’ survival hinges on whether a white man or black man gets out of that vehicle. Peele himself wrestled with this dichotomy, originally considering having a white cop get out and arrest Chris for slaughtering a white family. But as filmed, it’s the implication that’s more powerful than even seeing the worst happen could be. The moment cements a fear of white authority we may not even have had before, one the movie has instilled in us like a hypnotic suggestion. That shared fear of a new Other is also an act of profound empathy for people who may have been the Other for us before. That’s when you know Get Out has got you. And for you, there’s no escape.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 5: Five’ll Get You Dead, because you should always bet on black. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.