“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” meets “The Stepford Wives” in “Get Out,” in which a white girl brings her black boyfriend home to meet her parents, whose superficially warm welcome masks an unthinkably dark secret. Blending race-savvy satire with horror to especially potent effect, this bombshell social critique from first-time director Jordan Peele proves positively fearless — which is not at all the same thing as scareless. In fact, from the steady joy-buzzer thrills to its terrifying notion of a new way that white people have found to perpetuate the peculiar institution of slavery, “Get Out” delivers plenty to frighten and enrage audiences. But it’s the fact that Peele doesn’t pull a single one of his punches that makes his Blumhouse-backed debut a must-see event.
First teased in a secret midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival, “Get Out” represents a searing political statement wrapped in the guise of a more innocuous genre: the escape-the-crazies survival thriller, à la “Deliverance” or “The Wicker Man,” where sympathetic characters are held captive by a deranged cult. Except in this case, the crazies are the liberal white elite, who dangerously overestimate the degree of their own enlightenment — which means that Peele hasn’t gone after the easy target (assumed-racist Trump voters) but the same group that voted for Obama (and would’ve elected him to a third term, if they could).
In theory, horror may seem like a stretch for Peele (one half of the “Key and Peele” sketch-comedy duo), and yet both genres feed on the desire to provoke a physical reaction from audiences. In “Get Out,” the protagonist, a dark-skinned black man named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, most recently seen in “Sicario”), is an up-and-coming big-city photographer who’s been dating a white girl, Rose (Allison Williams of “Girls”), for five months — long enough that he can’t wriggle out of an invitation to visit her family, even if the thought makes him nervous. “Do they know I’m black?” he asks.
Their love is color-blind, but the world isn’t — and Chris is rightfully wary of how other people might react to seeing them together. When they get to her folks’ house, however, the Armitage family’s reception couldn’t be warmer. Played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, her parents are a hypnotherapist and a neurosurgeon, who welcome Chris into their tastefully furnished home without so much as batting an eye.
But there’s something off about the help. Live-in handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) are the only black people for miles around, and to Chris’ eyes, they seem just a little too obedient, moving in an almost lobotomized daze. When not busy with chores, Walter runs at top speed around the estate, while Georgina wastes long hours gazing at her own reflection — zombie-like behaviors whose significance will eventually be revealed, but strike Chris (and the audience) as more than a little unsettling in the meantime.
Equally unnerving are Chris’ hyper-polite interactions with Mr. and Mrs. Armitage, who pretend not to notice their guest’s skin color, while secretly congratulating themselves on how accepting they are, as when Rose’s father shares how proud he is that his dad ran alongside Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, where the gold-medalist’s wins put Hitler in his place — clearly not an opinion he would feel compelled to share if Chris were white. It all strikes the young man as weird, though Chris is obliged to smile and nod, while his only way to reality-check the situation is to ask Rose (who’s convinced that he’s reading too much into everything), or else to call his black best friend, a worst-case-scenario-inclined TSA officer played by comedian Lil Rel Howery.
Rose’s advice: Relax. Their ill-timed visit coincides with a big annual gathering, which brings a bunch of rich people over for a picnic — all of them white, except for a token Asian and one other “brother” (Lakeith Stanfield), whom audiences have seen abducted in the film’s tone-setting opening scene. The Armitages’ friends also seem far more accepting of Chris than he would have anticipated, though their questions leave him feeling uncomfortable, and when he presses Stanfield’s character for his take on the situation, the guy snaps, uttering the unheeded warning of the film’s title.
By this time, however, Chris has gotten in too deep, as the feel of “Get Out” shifts from eerie suspense-setting to full-on horror-movie mode — though it should be said that Peele has effectively kept audiences on edge since the beginning, sending occasional jolts through the crowd that, once viewers realize they’ve been tweaked, translate into appreciative “you got us!” laughs. Practically all horror movies use humor to modulate the tension, but Peele takes it further, carving out room for full-blown comedy to coexist alongside the increasingly unsettling mystery of what the Armitages have in store for their guest.
The disconcerting score and occasional jump-scares have been there all along, but it’s not until Chris awakens to find himself officially held captive that the movie finally starts to really feel like a Blumhouse production — and Peele relishes how over-the-top he can finally go. By this point, audiences have come to realize whom Chris must kill to get out, and that struggle is pitched at such a degree that audiences actually cheer as he gorily eliminates the white people who stand in his way. Call it payback for all the expendable black characters that Hollywood horror movies have given us over the years. Here’s a movie in which a person of color actually makes it to the closing credits, though Peele might question whether that qualifies as a happy ending.
Clearly, “Get Out” will play very differently to black and white audiences — and if the film doesn’t rile a significant contingent of the latter, it simply isn’t doing its job. But there’s something telling in the underlying anxiety that Peele’s script exploits, from the opening scene (in which an uneasy black man walking alone in a predominately white suburb recalls the fate of Trayvon Martin) to the last, when the arrival of a police car suggests a near-certain turn for the worse.
What a watershed feat Peele has pulled off, delivering such a gloriously twisted thriller that simultaneously has so much to say about the state of affairs in post-Obama America. “Get Out” goes there, so to speak, and though one could argue that it crosses the line, the film’s subversive p.o.v. challenges the place of white privilege from which most pop culture is conceived. By revealing how the ruling majority gives freedoms, but they can also take them away, Peele seizes upon more than just a terrifying horror-movie premise; he exposes a reality in which African-Americans can never breathe easy.