Not even a sold-out midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival could convince Jordan Peele that his directorial debut, the horror-thriller Get Out, existed. Was it all in his head? "Here's a movie that will never be made," he joked to the rowdy crowd in his introduction, quoting the recurring response he heard during years of pitching the script.
His mystery-doused movie had a breakthrough when the producers of Insidious, The Purge, and Split bit. The movie could fly on a tight budget. Peele could have creative control. And the satirical script that Hollywood executives insisted couldn't happen in this day and age, would. Fast-forward to five minutes into Get Out's secret Sundance premiere, when it becomes clear why risk-averse moneymen might worry about Peele's vision. Get Out blends Key & Peele's satirical comedy with the sadistic instincts of Wes Craven into a ravenous masterpiece capable of confronting the delicate topic of race in America.
The setup of Get Out should sound familiar to fans of the 1967 Sidney Poitier classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: after four months of dating, it's finally time for Chris (Black Mirror actor Daniel Kaluuya) to meet the parents of his girlfriend Rose (Girls' Allison Williams). He's reasonably worried -- Rose has never dated a black guy before, and because Chris is a cognizant adult in 2017, knows there could be... tension. Rose insists her "parents aren't racist." In fact, her dad would have voted for Barack Obama for a third term if it were possible. Of course.
Mr. and Mrs. Armitage don't turn out to be bigots, but a breed of ideologue that still cuts Chris: pandering, post-racial liberals. On a tour of their mansion, Dean (Bradley Whitford) professes a love of world culture and admires his grandfather for losing out to Jesse Owens in the Olympics (and did he mention he loves Obama?). Dean knows how it looks to have a black maid and gardener, holdovers from when his parents needed the help, but potential guilt outweighs any shame. He just really wants Chris to know: the Armitages love that Rose has a black boyfriend.
At his Sundance Q&A, Peele said that the 2008 Democratic runoff between Obama and Hillary Clinton inspired his subversion of the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner blueprints (50 years old this year, by the way). During that election, years of discriminatory action perpetrated by both parties were swept under the rug as Democrats prepared the country for its first black president. A utopian view of racial unity prompted Peele to "take a stab at the liberal elite that believes we're above these things." The completed Get Out reflects the writer-director's original mission; when the movie reveals the Armitages' true nature, their ulterior motives, Chris finds himself stuck in a hyper-woke version of Stepford Wives, where black envy ultimately turns to bloodlust.
Stepford Wives was an inspiration for Peele when fleshing out Get Out's larger themes. "The way [Stepford Wives] dealt with the social issues in regards to gender, that's proof you can pull off a movie about race that's a thriller that's entertainment, that's fun -- a wild ride."
"Wild" is where five seasons of searing sketch comedy come in handy. When Get Out isn't delivering nightmares of predatory hypnosis and entrapment, it's goofing off. Chris's first late-night walk through the Armitage manor is punctuated by screeching-to-the-point-of-parody jump scares and an appearance by the zombified maid, whose ear-to-ear grin looks like Marie Osmond playing The Joker. During a lawn party with the upper crust, Chris encounters more boorish praise ("black is so in right now") and an old friend, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who now dresses like a barbershop quartet tenor and dates a white woman twice his age. Comedian Lil Rel Howery provides literal comedy relief as Chris's best friend, a TSA agent who is certain the weekend trip is one big ploy to turn Chris into a sex slave. His only evidence: Jeffrey Dahmer's bedroom habits.
Get Out churned in Peele's brain for years, and it shows. Unlike so many horror movies that plod through plot to get to the slashing, Get Out's winding road is as exhilarating as the reveals. Peele knows just when to rest on Kaluuya's suspecting, bloodshot eyes, or give the actor and Williams a chance to show off their real chemistry. As with comedy, expectations are Peele's greatest weapon against our nerves; in 2017, the image of a cop car pulling up to a bleeding black man conjures a powerful image, and Peele's horror-comedy tone takes full advantage.
Last April, in the throes of editing Get Out, Peele told me why jumping from making people laugh to making them shriek was such a natural fit: "Horror and comedy are both based on timing. They're both based on taking an absurd notion and grounding it. I've done so much with comedy, and I've laughed so much in my career, that I'm at a place where finding a movie that really scares the shit out of me is a very special, sacred find. Both laughter and fear are compelling emotions, or reactions to emotions. When you experience them through art, it forces you to look inward, and it teaches you something about yourself and hopefully about society at large. They're very similar, but I'm really fascinated by the art of scaring people."
Consider yourself an artist, Mr. Peele -- Get Out, a movie that would never be made, is one of 2017's first essential experiences.
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