Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: "Get Out"

Director: Jordan Peele
Runtime: 103 minutes

Ambiguity is the name of the game for so many horror classics, especially those involving a domestic setting (Rosemary's Baby). Is the central character really dealing with evil and/or the supernatural, or is it - to some degree - all in their head? That first act ambiguity is a powerful part of what helps so many movies land their big twists. And yet, it's not the only way. In the new film Get Out, we know something is "off" with the environment the protagonist wanders into. The question, then, revolves around the degree of maliciousness lurking beneath the placid surface. The answer, courtesy of Key & Peele's Jordan Peele, could not be more satisfying. 

Peele's background (he started on MadTV before creating the aforementioned sketch show with Keegan Michael-Key) would suggest that his point of view is best limited to the short bursts provided by the late night format. Yet with Get Out, Mr. Peele has proven himself more than capable of taking a timely premise and stretching it to its appropriately absurd endpoint without losing steam. 

So what, pray tell, is this thing about? Well, it all starts when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, of Sicario and the "Five Million Merits" episode of Black Mirror) goes with his girlfriend Rose (Girls' Allison Williams) to meet her upscale parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). Some would suggest going in as cold as possible. I, through luck, read a draft of the script last summer. Yet even knowing where every twist and jump scare was located, I nonetheless found myself white-knuckling my way through....even as I was cringing or laughing hysterically. As others have pointed out, the story is essentially Look Who's Coming To Dinner crossbred with The Stepford Wives. But even with those obvious influences, it's hard to deny that Get Out is its own thrillingly unique piece of work.

In the past few years, the issue of race relations has been thrust into the American consciousness in uncomfortable ways. As marginalized voices utilize modern tools, our (by "our" I mostly mean white people) understanding of the degrees of systemic and cultural racism have been burst wide open. It's not just a matter of MLK vs. the KKK. It's all everything from flat-out declarations of racism to the understated, yet equally insidious, actions often referred to as micro-aggressions. You think the KKK is bad? Congratulations, but that doesn't mean you've never engaged in or benefited from other mutations of racism.

If all of this makes Get Out sound like a harsh lecture, fear not. It's entirely possible to enjoy Peele's story-telling based on thrills and scares alone. But I'd also argue that one's enjoyment would only increase by directly engaging with the assertions (both serious and tongue-in-cheek) of Peele's film. The subtext is not tacked on as a cheap play for socio-political relevance. It's a necessary part of telling this story, as outlandish as it becomes, well. 

And what a story it turns out to be. After two acts of planting hints and making sinister suggestions, the homestretch arrives, and it's nothing short of a masterstroke of racially-charged satire. To call the film's finale "bonkers" would do it a disservice. It's certainly insane, but built so organically off of everything that came before that it all feels wholly earned. Peele's direction is nimble, even when dealing with exposition. His actors, meanwhile, are uniformly excellent. Mr. Kaluuya is effortlessly compelling as the story's anchor (one hopes this is the film that will catapult him onto the A-list), never more so than when undergoes a session of hypnotherapy with Ms. Keener. A marvel of directing, staging, and acting, the sequence hinges on Kaluuya's emotional nakedness in the moment, and he nails it, without ever straining for a false sense of dramatic importance.

But, at least for white audiences, the real shock here is Williams. Rose is much more than the cheerful girlfriend, and Williams handles the character's shifting allegiances without ever falling out of step with the carefully-balanced tone. Imagine Williams as her character from Girls, and the whole thing somehow becomes even funnier and dead-on. Marnie can be astounding in her lack of self-awareness. By contrast, Rose enables Williams to play a multifaceted character with an outside acknowledgement of her biases and prejudices. Rose may not always "get it," but Williams clearly does, and the results are riotously good. The old adage goes "art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." From a white viewer's perspective, it's through Williams that this notion hits home. I was tense, I laughed out loud, and yet somewhere deep down, I was left vaguely nauseous. We're meant to identify with the millennial, "woke" girl who has no issues whatsoever dating a black guy, and is embarrassed by her parents' forced hipness with black culture. By the end, those implications are deeply funny. They're also scary as hell.

Grade: B+/A-

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