Genre films — horror, comedy, fantasy, Westerns — have always been great vessels for social commentary. The spoonful of cinematic sugar helps the medicine go down. Actor-comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out,” is an expert example of the way this works, though it’s far more than just a trenchant cultural critique wrapped in an appealing package. In this horror film, the horror is us, our history, our own troubled relationship with race. It’s bold, provocative, funny, and an overdue tonic for a society and media saturated with archaic norms and images.
In the searing Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” writer James Baldwin’s words are used to tear at the seams of America’s socially constructed facade about race; at the laws, institutions and media representations that have positioned whiteness as the norm. One wishes, badly, that Baldwin could take in “Get Out,” in which writer-director Peele flips horror conventions on their head, and in doing so, flips our cultural perceptions, revealing a dark underside.
“Get Out” riffs on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as Rose (Allison Williams) brings her new boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home to her lily-white, upper-crust community. While her neurosurgeon father (Bradley Whitford) and hypnotist-psychiatrist mother (Catherine Keener) welcome him with open arms, Chris can’t help but notice that the other black people he encounters there just aren’t acting quite right, and frankly, the white people seem a little too interested in him (and his physical qualities).
Using horror stereotypes and genre expectations, Peele transforms the black guy from predator to prey, from First Victim to Final Girl. Whiteness is no longer the norm, but creeping terror and evil. It’s satire, but it’s also uncomfortably real. When a black guy walking alone on the street at night in the suburbs is in danger from white people, that’s simply a cold, hard fact ripped from the headlines.
Aesthetically, Peele demonstrates a deep knowledge of the horror canon and its stylistic techniques. The camera creeps and glides around the palatial house; strings shriek and moan on the soundtrack to great effect. Scares come not from extreme violence or gore but from a pervasive sense of dread and unease that something isn’t quite right with the people here — it’s like “The Stepford Wives” for race instead of gender.
The soundtrack and score are exceptional, mixing hair-raising music cues with classical horror composition that seamlessly integrates with the sound design, which plays an important part of the narrative. As the hapless victim turned hero, Kaluuya gives an unexpected, though utterly perceptive performance — as an intended victim, he is knowing, quiet and still rather than surprised or hysterical. Williams, Whitford and Lakeith Stanfield also offer up incredible supporting turns.
The film derives its dread from a fear of white people — that they will scheme, plan, kidnap and exploit black bodies for their own consumption, pleasure and strength. That fear is all too real. That is not the boogeyman, that is America. That is our nation’s history (ahem, Thomas Jefferson). The film and its heightened, horrific scenario is social satire, not propaganda, but Peele forces the audience to confront uncomfortable truths here. That gutsy commentary goes down smoothly with the help of his assured and confident direction.
☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Daniel Kaluuye, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield.
Writer-director: Jordan Peele.
Running time: 1:43.
Rated: R, for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references.