Since the genre first found its way onto a silver screen, horror films have often found ways to be bigger than themselves. Back in 1965, a little film by the name “Night of the Living Dead” featured a blackprotagonist that becomes the hero of the film. While the world was deep in fights over segregation, George A. Romero created a classic of the horror genre. However, what continues to make “Night of the Living Dead” relevant today is how the film ends. Rather than walking off into the sunset, our lone survivor is murdered by the cops, with the assumption that he too is a zombie. The scene in question, as well as the credits that follow, harken to the all too real image of lynchings and terror in the battle against segregation. This left an imprint on those who watched the film due to the relatability of the images, images that still haunt audiences to this day.
Just a few weeks ago, a new classic emerged from the depths of the genre and confronts many of the same issues “Night of the Living Dead” had in the 1960s. That film, “Get Out,” is not only a masterpiece within the world of horror, but director Jordan Peele crafted something that should transcend generations. The film is centered around Chris, a man visiting his girlfriend’s family for a weekend out of the city. However, it is quickly revealed that something is not right in the town, which slowly gives way to a far more devious and malicious plot.
What Peele accomplishes in this film is so far above what your everyday horror film is capable of. In fact, few films have the ability to open up discourse about taboo, and frankly terrifying topics. Yet this is what Peele is looking to confront with this very film. It is not about whether or not the societal issues exist. They do. Rather, he looks to ask why we are crippled with fear as a society. It is our lack of communication that drives these issues, and Peele realizes this vehicle can help usher meaningful communication into the dialogue.
Few films are able to create a discourse with as many layers as “Get Out.” At the heart of the film is the discomfort many feel on both sides of the table. White men and women are scared to join conversations because they fear being called a racist. Black men and women are worried about being held up as trophies by their white friends, as the proof their caucasian friend is not a racist. There’s also an uneasiness that is still present even if we choose to ignore it: that the ancestors of white men and women are responsible for the evils of slavery and the perpetual suppression of black communities. Racism exists today and will continue to exist tomorrow. But rather than acknowledge these facts, white folk like myself will cling to the fact that “I voted for Obama twice” or “I have lots of black friends,” as if that makes me some sort of expert about issues facing the communities in question. Rather than simply listen to the experiences of those around us, we try to fill in the blanks based on our interpersonal relationships and pop culture representations. Right there is a problem, one of many that surround racial discourse.
Whew. These are the issues that Peele makes me think about as a critic, and I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of this film. That’s the power here: you can take something extremely personal out of the text presented to you, and realize you still have a long way to go. What Peele has done her is something most great horror films do. Rather than try to scare you by jumping out of corners or falling from the ceiling, great horror directors make you see a piece of yourself in the situation. Films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” or “The Thing,” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” have more at stake than just their literal stories. It is through the ability to create a multi-level narrative and allegory that true horror greatness is possible.
Beyond the conceptual ideas floating around “Get Out,” there are far more literal signs of expertise throughout. Peele’s script is almost flawless in execution, weaving moments of humor and laughter into a narrative with moments of actual terror. Peele also plans moments down to the second, an instinct that likely grew as he developed comedic timing on “Mad Tv,” and “Key and Peele.” The camera moves brilliantly throughout the film and frames aspects of the film wonderfully. The visual language at play is almost as important as the actual dialogue itself. The sound design and execution creates memorable moments throughout the film, which in turn provide mental cues for the audience to feel fear and anxiety over the sound of spoons in china. Last but not least, the set design and production value of the film takes it from a solid horror film to a spectacular one. The house is fully realized, and in many ways works to isolate Chris from the world around him. Great horror films are often only as strong as their settings, and Chris is dropped into environments where isolation can break a mind.
Chris is played brilliantly by Daniel Kaluuya, an actor who already had a prominent role in Denis Villeneuve‘s masterpiece, “Sicario.” Kaluuya is responsible for the film’s most iconic image, one of Chris frozen in terror as tears fall down his face. Beyond that moment in the film, Kaluuya is able to continually sell each line of dialogue handed to him, leading to one of the most complete performances in a horror film in some time. His anger, paranoia, fear, and frustrations are all palpable from scene to scene, which only further gives audience’s reasons to empathize with the character. This is Kaluuya’s coming out party, and he should be remembered for this role as he walks the path to superstardom.
However, stopping at Kaluuya would be a disservice to the excellent supporting cast. Alison Williams has also delivered a lauded performance as the girlfriend Rose. She is excellent as the sociopathic Rose and leads the audience to believe her naivety at multiple moments through the film. Even when you’ve caught on to her act, she sells her betrayal in such a way that it still feels like a gut-punch to the audience. It’s rare that you regret siding with a character earlier in the film, but that’s what occurs here. If you’ve been on her side through issues in the film, you realize the extent of her manipulation and the sociopathic behavior just below the surface.
The rest of the film is rounded out by excellent character actors. Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, and the spectacular Lakeith Stanfield all turn in excellent performances that elevate the already spectacular material. Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson also deliver breakout performances here that sell the comedic aspects of the film, while also showcasing the power of strong facial work as an actor. However, perhaps the MVP of the film from a supporting role is LilRel Howwery. From Howery’s first moments on screen, it is obvious that he’s an extremely talented comedic actor. He delivers one-liners that jump from the page and add a new level to the film. He may also have the most memorable scene at the end of the film. When you sell scenes like these, you have to the charisma and timing to make this work. Here, Howery showcases both in what will likely be remembered as one of the best scenes of 2017.
It is in this last scene that Peele is able to lead us to an honest moment as a society. One last check for spoilers in case you haven’t seen the movie. Go on, I’ll wait. Please go see the film before reading this.
As Chris and Rose struggle on the road, we see red and blue lights driving down the road. The car stops just short of the struggle, and one thought crosses the audience’s mind “oh no.” After all, we’ve seen how this story plays out in the local media at least a hundred times. A cop pulls up, doesn’t fully understand the details, and shoots before asking questions. The images of young black men murdered by the police have become frighteningly commonplace in our world. There are whole movements, such as BLM, that seek an understanding of why this continues to occur. As an audience member, we know what happens when red and blue flash in front of black men. Yet, the unexpected occurs: instead of an antagonist of Chris, we find his ally. There are few times I’ve ever felt a theater tense up around me, but this scene absolutely had me on edge for the next 15 minutes. It is an incredible sequence that not only subverts iconography we attribute to the death of black men but also finds a way into our minds through culturally recognized symbols. This is how “Night of the Living Dead” was able to become a classic in 1965. Now, Peele has created another with “Get Out” in 2017.
Overall the film is an incredible ride, one which should hold an important place in the national discourse. As someone who is white, it can hard to discuss racial issues at play, but that is why we must. I know I am guilty of some of the very issues discussed in this film, but the only way to grow as an individual is to acknowledge my faults. This is a film that can open discourse to those around you, so use it to do just that. At the end of the day, that is what Peele is asking of you: to simply communicate with those around you without the hesitation or paralyzing effects that shut down dialogue.