Jordan Peele’s first film, Get Out, is a great début. I’ll confess that it is rare for me to care all that much about a newly released horror/thriller film these days, but of course this one is different than the usual. It was interesting to me in that it consciously plays on many of the tropes of the genre, but then does weird things with them, like Kubrick did in The Shining (though it only somewhat resembles that film in places). In many ways it is akin to Rosemary’s Baby or The Wicker Man (I’ve also seen it compared to The Stepford Wives) — except that the ultimate evil here is not Satanism or paganism or anything supernatural, but rather whiteness itself! The first half of the film wittily explores the various microaggressions that black people are frequently subject to in American society, and is thus a kind of well-rendered social commentary. These, however, are bizarrely heightened, and so for example the main character’s interaction with a cop is laden not only with the usual layer of fear that many, especially African Americans, might feel in such a situation, but also with the expectation of potential terror that you get in the horror film.
Then, in the second half (spoiler alert!), we learn that these microaggressions (exemplified especially at the white girlfriend’s family’s party) spring from more than just the usual subconscious or even conscious racism that still widely exists in the supposedly more enlightened America of today. In fact, the white family wants the protagonist’s black body (because, they say, black people have stronger physical genes, propagating yet another stereotype) — they are essentially turning them into zombies, re-enslaving them in a sense, and ultimately transplanting the brains of their dying, rich white friends into the bodies of kidnapped African Americans whom they have lured to their house in one way or another, here through the girlfriend, who is in on it, but sometimes, with the help of the girlfriend’s younger brother (who plucks them off of the street). Upper-class whiteness is suddenly revealed as a kind of sinister cult, hiding behind a liberal veneer, but enacting a horror just as evil as anything that occurred in past history.
On one hand, then, Get Out is a wry satire, but on the other an eerie intensification of the real fear that exists for many, and finally is a metaphor for contemporary America. It is amazingly filmed, which may or may not be a surprise from a first-time director who came to prominence for a comedy sketch show (I personally was always a fan of Key & Peele, and thought it was excellently directed). In a way, it is odd that the film is being promoted in such a mainstream way (though good for Peele). Peele has the eye of a more “artistic” director and seems to be taking cues from people like Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and so forth. The opening sequence is an impressionistic montage of a forest, with a nice play of light, and there are unexpected dream-like sequences that occur when the protagonist is hypnotized by the girlfriend’s mother, and so on. Call me a snob if you want, but sitting through the 20 minutes of awful “Hollywood blockbuster”-type action-movie previews before Get Out even began felt incongruous, and reminded me why I never see them. But in this case it was well worth it.