After an Oscars season throughout which the question of race in cinema was never far from commentators’ lips, up steps the unlikely figure of a horror-comedy to smash the US box office with a hotter take than the rest. Get Out, Jordan Peele’s feature debut, somehow manages to be that rarest of things – an unpredictable horror film, and a gleefully sharp satire all at once. Gone are horror’s default targets: young girls aren’t punished for promiscuity or men for scepticism. Get Out doesn’t read like an attack, but more a good-natured entreaty for earnest white liberals to have a word with themselves.
It has a point. We’re pretty lame. There is a tendency among the white intelligentsia to congratulate ourselves on our progressive credentials: retweeting Owen Jones and sharing worthyis small potatoes, but in Peele’s nightmarishly polite world, we’ve bagged the ultimate virtue-signal trophy. Rose (Allison Williams) and her family are delighted that she has a black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris) for what it says about them: we’re the good guys, and we really want everyone to know it.
Rose and Chris, after a few months’ dating in the city, are heading out to the country to meet her folks. We’re not drawing the usual Deliverance-style distinction between big-city and small-town values here, though it concerns Chris (“Do they know I’m black?” he asks her, afraid she’s setting up a Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner sting to watch the fine-bone china shatter and call out her intolerant family). This isn’t helped when a local patrolman unnecessarily asks for his ID on the drive up, an implicitly racist instinct which Rose seems almost to welcome, so pleased is she that it gives her an opportunity to demonstrate her outrage. But Chris needn’t worry on this score: mum and dad (Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford) welcome him with open arms, with dad particularly eager to talk to him about Obama and Jesse Owens.
This is Peele’s main target: a sort of fetishisation of blackness, in which white liberals make the mistake of presuming that every black person is constantly thinking about their own ethnicity, and want to discuss it and be reassured that it’s not an issue. While well-intentioned it treats people of colour as curios and defines them by their race (the Juneteenth episode of Donald Glover’s Atlanta contains a particularly excruciating character with this habit).
There’s something more sinister going on than clumsy small talk, though. Chris finds that the black housekeeper and groundskeeper have a Stepford-like quality, smiling blankly and talking in mannered tones. Rose’s mother, a therapist, is a little too keen to hypnotise him to cure his nicotine addiction. An incongruously genteel black guest at the garden party with a white wife twenty years his senior looks an awful lot like a guy Chris’s friend knew who went missing a few months back.
The horror isn’t so much bolted on to the satire as it is bled through it. When we discover what’s really going on, it’s not by means of a sudden switch to a darker tone, From Dusk Till Dawn-like, but via the realisation that the dread has been there under the surface the whole time, masked by good manners and social awkwardness. There’s pleasingly little reliance on jump scares, and if you’ve been waiting for a little gore you’ll get it. Peele’s even brave enough to cut away to whole scenes that use Chris’s friend Rod for a switch in tone to out-and-out comedy, that lands perfectly through Lil Rel Howery’s exasperated delivery, before dumping you back into the suburban nightmare.
While Get Out is in no doubt that racists are the real enemy, it should make white audiences squirm at least a little, asking questions about whether an overeagerness to demonstrate one’s own comfort with multiculturalism is more alienating than it is inclusive. As a thinkpiece it provokes, as a genre film it’s winningly tense, and as a debut it’s about as assured, well-judged and original as you’re likely to see all year.