The unspoken laws of the universe determine that just when we think something is dead and buried, it comes lurching back to life with renewed vigour, or, in the case of Get Out, soaring into a new stratosphere. Horror, while still an eminently profitable business, has been out of mainstream for quite some time. Gory action movies abound, of course. And Game of Thrones, perhaps the most popular and successful TV series in history, extensively utilizes horror elements. But good old-fashioned horror movies have been on the sidelines for some time, finding succor only in the adoring fans prepared to back indie-ventures. Get Out, the brainchild of comic genius Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele), breaks this mould by delivering an extraordinary horror movie, one that manages to explore several potent themes whilst never becoming heavy-handed with its message or straying into the realm of dogmatic preaching. Striking a delicate balance between capturing the spirit of classic 80s horror with delivering something that speaks to modern audiences, this is probably the best horror movie in the last 5 or 6 years.
The premise is disarmingly simple: a young black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is taken home by his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time. Chris is concerned that her parents don’t know he’s black. Rose assures him it isn’t going to be a problem. Over the course of Chris’s stay at the Armitage household, he starts to notice more and more things amiss. All the servants on the estate are black. The Armitage’s family friends are creepily intrusive – one woman being so bold as to feel Chris’ muscles and ask Rose whether ‘it’s true that it’s better?’ The undercurrent of racism is so brilliantly observed. An old man, accosting Chris and asking him whether he has ever played golf, immediately starts singing the praises of Tiger Woods. Rose’s father, Dean (Bradley Whitford), is so quick to praise black runners when Chris spots a picture of Dean’s father on a racetrack. Peele highlights racism doesn’t always look like drunken thugs throwing slurs and beer-bottles. Racism is a state of mind and far more insidious in our society.
Get Out utilizes many classic horror tropes: an eerie mansion in the middle of the woods, a strange group of people who keep a secret, an excruciatingly discordant soundtrack, but these never feel staid because they are done so well and often in fresh ways. The script is a cinematic-gem, nothing ever feeling over-blown or unreal, but yet engaging with complex themes. Jordan Peele’s comic background becomes an incredible asset here as he balances the mind-boggling tension with hilarious interactions between Chris and his friend Rod, played with incredible panache and timing by Lil Rel Howery. Rod is perhaps one of the best ‘buddies’ in all of horror, a shit-talking TSA officer (or “T. S. mother-fucking A” as Rod likes to put it) charged with looking after Chris’s dog while he’s away at the Armitage estate. Rod proves the one port of sanity for Chris as things start to become stranger and stranger.
But to say Get Out is only about race would be to limit it. It’s also about the deeper consciousness and the things we bury there. Hypnosis is a recurrent theme. And if you aren’t scared by the idea of hypnotism before you watch Get Out, you will be afterward. There is a harrowing scene in which Chris is submerged in the sunken place, a buried blackness where he becomes a passive observer watching the world through a kind of floating TV screen. The sensory deprivation, Chris’s mind detached from his body, is captured in the incredible sound design and the disturbing visuals. Daniel Kaluuya’s acting here is sensational as he is forced by the hypnotist, Mrs Armitage (Catherine Keener), to relive the moment of his own mother’s death. While in a state of paralysis, he experiences a complete emotional breakdown, blaming himself for her death because he just sat and watched TV rather than call the police: ‘If I called them it would make it real’. It’s moving and disturbing in equal measure and convincing due to staggering performances and cinematography.
This critical trauma becomes a motif throughout the film. At key points, characters are challenged to act, and their indifference, or moments of paralysis, lead to further wrongdoing. There’s possibly never been a better illustration of the old quote: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’ (Edmund Burke). In addition, when the plot reaches its nadir, its point of no-return and absolute darkness, Chris finds himself strapped to a chair, being subjected to hypnotic suggestion via a TV screen. It’s subtly done, as is virtually everything in Get Out, but it lends the film real emotional impact. The hero’s past, the whole construction of his consciousness from this one awful moment, is tied up with current events. It’s more than just a series of things happening, it’s microcosmic of the whole elliptical nature of time, the past repeating itself, the cycle of everything. Incidentally, this is an idea that is absolutely essential to horror, and is particularly evident in the works of Stephen King and shows like True Detective. In the final scene of The Stand, Randall Flagg re-materialises on a shore in what is seemingly an earlier epoch of man, about to begin the cycle of destruction and rebirth again. In True Detective, Rust Cohle observes:
‘In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So death created time to grow the things that it would kill… and you are reborn but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation, detectives? Well, who knows? When you can’t remember your lives, you can’t change your lives, and that is the terrible and the secret fate of all life. You’re trapped… like a nightmare you keep waking up into.’
In most stories – whatever medium they are told in – there is an inevitable turning point, where the heroes can finally fight back. The Greeks called this a ‘peripitea’. The brilliance of horror is that it doesn’t necessarily need to have one. In fact, horror can end with everyone dead except the cameraman. Without giving too much away, Get Out does feature a peripitea of sorts, and what a satisfying one it is. Jordan Peele manages to align us with the hero so we feel his rage, the injustice, as though it is our own. Unlike many issue-driven narratives, Get Out doesn’t accuse its viewers and audience or make them feel responsible for racism. That is its real triumph and success; it makes its message heard through empathy, a far more powerful tool than blame, and a mark of truly sophisticated writing and direction. I felt, perhaps for the first time ever, that I understood a little bit of what it might be like to be Chris and to feel this implicit antagonism at all turns. In a way, Get Out echoes what Shakespeare achieved 400 years previous with The Merchant of Venice in humanizing his Jewish antagonist Shylock to the point at which we empathize with him further than we do with the Christian Antonio. If The Merchant of Venice had rather been a lengthy lecture on the matter of religious equality, it would likely not be remembered. But we remember Shylock’s heart-rending speech at the play’s close because it evokes tragic humanity and suffering:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is?
Nothing is perfect, of course, though Get Out is pretty damn close. Jordan Peele is clearly an adept scriptwriter but there were two moments in the film where I felt like his characters were describing what they were doing for the benefit of the audience. It was done well comparable with other atrocious examples in recent film history, and solipsism is a theme of the film, but it still feels slightly lazy. When so much of the Get Out is subtle, conveying information through visuals or the implied, these moments stand out like sore thumbs. At another point in the narrative, there were a couple of scare moments that were borderline comic. I think this was absolutely intentional, but my preference would have been for Peele to bite the bullet and go for full-blown terror rather than tempering the fear. As I said, these are so minor that they do not detract from the overall effect, but I feel duty-bound to mention them and balance the review.
There is much more I’d like to say about Get Out but can’t, as it would spoil some of the surprising twists and turns. Suffice to say, there are moments of deep, gut-wrenching horror that are achieved through the most startlingly minimalist means. The tension almost never lets up through the whole film (I only realized as the credits rolled my stomach muscles were aching) and, the mark of any truly great film: I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards and ended up lying in bed awake. Get Out isn’t just a film with a message, it’s a complex love-letter to horror created by someone who fundamentally understands it; it’s brimming with psychotropic ideas, imagery and nuance. Seemingly insignificant lines of dialogue return to significance later in the plot, echoing again that cyclical core at the heart of all horror.
Why cycles and circles you ask? Our dreams are circular, and the closest thing to hell we can imagine is that feeling of being trapped in a God-awful dream, stuck in the loop of our own terror and paralyzing emotions. Get Out captures that – in numerous ways. When it ends, you’ll feel like you’ve woken up – to borrow a phrase form Samuel Taylor Coleridge – ‘a sadder and a wiser man’.
Review by Joseph Sale
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