One of the true cinematic success stories of this decade, both popularly and critically, is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an original movie in an age of franchises that managed to leave a cultural footprint all its own. As an early example of the current wave of so-called “elevated horror” (a dubious and disputed name), it’s also an important film. Broadly speaking, horror/thriller movies of this type lean toward the esoteric in their artistry while front-loading their thematic concerns. These movies are overtly “about” something, whether it be grief, depression, racism or parenting, and at their worst they only use the tools of horror stories as a means to that end. As for Peele, he’s been entirely candid about his film’s status as a “social thriller” and, at least in part, a comedy. For better or worse, Get Out offers plenty of things to discuss. My memory is fuzzy regarding how much of the film’s Twilight Zone-esque subterranean plot had been revealed to me before I finally rented it in July 2017. I don’t recall being stunned by the twists and turns. These days, one can pick up enough hints on social media even without direct spoilers. But in any case, it was good to see the movie a second time, with full knowledge of what’s really going on. (Anyone who hasn’t seen Get Out should probably stop reading here.)
It’s not every day that a movie’s best thematic idea is communicated with cogent and evocative images. When such a thing happens, and the movie is popular, it’s no wonder that those images and ideas will become cultural memes. So it was with Get Out and “the sunken place.” Peele’s masterstroke with this scene was the way he fused the sinister machinations of the villains with his main character’s emotional turmoil. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) falls into the Armitage family’s trap because of his own lingering guilt over the circumstances of his mother’s death. His inaction on that night rhymes with hypnosis-induced paralysis in the present, lending heft to an otherwise outlandish plot device. Internal character growth dovetails with the external threats and their accompanying metaphors. In short, those metaphors concern the commodification of Black bodies in American culture and the manipulation lurking beneath the condescending racism of white liberals.
Chris’s early conversations with the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are appropriately funny and awkward; the “I would have voted for Obama for a third term” joke is justifiably famous, but the tone-deaf references to Jesse Owens and Tiger Woods also stand out. Still, these moments aren’t nearly as fascinating as the interactions between Chris and the Black characters who, we later learn, have become possessed by older white people as a way of attaining immortality. The performances by Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel and Lakeith Stanfield in these roles are remarkable for their body-snatching authenticity and the scattered hints of a trapped soul underneath. Never mind the microaggressions and ignorance of the white family; Chris has learned, from decades of experience, to expect all of that. What really prompts him to “stay woke,” in the words of the Childish Gambino song that plays over the character’s first scene, is the strange behavior and unrecognizable attitudes of the very people who should instinctively understand him.
Peele accomplishes an awful lot with this straightforward science-fiction premise, most notably exposing the “color-blind” approach to race relations. The body snatchers don’t put even the slightest effort into mimicking the unspoken social cues that would put Chris at ease. (One could argue that they go too far in the other direction, striking menacing poses for no good reason.) There is arrogance in this refusal to play a role, a belief that Chris won’t be able to escape regardless of his suspicions, but at the same time it shows a grotesque misunderstanding of the ways people in ethnic minorities relate to each other. “Passing” for white is relatively easy, because those social cues are everywhere. An equally superficial approach in the opposite direction is doomed to failure. Peele gets in one last jab at the color-blind idea during the film’s climax. A literally blind art dealer (Stephen Root) prepares to transfer his consciousness into Chris’s body, insisting all the while that his motivations for this dehumanizing action are not racist.
As a keyhole into an experience that is different from my own, I find great value in Get Out. There is just a bit of a nagging sense that the movie doesn’t make me — ostensibly the kind of white liberal being critiqued in the story — sufficiently uncomfortable. The big moment involving a set of keys near the end is an effective gut punch, but the character in question transforms in that moment from an oblivious virtue-signaling paper tiger to a dead-eyed racist psycho. This turn would seem to let a lot of people off the hook. The first thing is bad enough on its own without being a facade for the second thing. Peele emphasizes the allegorical nature of his storytelling to the slight detriment of the horror on its own terms. We spend more time pondering what the situation means as opposed to squirming in its clutches and then thinking about it later. That’s the “elevated” part. Still, there’s more than enough alienation, danger, and cathartic violence to make this a rewarding example of its genre, whatever we choose to call it.