Folks, the year is still young, but I would say we have a contender for best horror film of 2017. We got outstanding performances from the entire cast, but special mention should be given to Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, and Betty Gabriel. Jordan Peele produced an outstanding and incredibly tight script, filled with metaphor and historical references, each of them carefully thought out and placed deliberately for maximum impact. There’s comedy, horror, the best and worse of human nature, a protagonist that the audience can connect and empathize with, moments of horror, misunderstanding, and beautiful camera work. Get Out utilizes every actor, set piece, and camera angle for maximum impact. It has one of the tightest and most professional looking productions that I’ve seen in years and it’s obvious that a great deal of thought went into every aspect, from the casting to the sound design. This does not feel like a directorial debut, and promises good things to come from Jordan Peele’s work in the future.
There isn’t much I can say without getting into spoilers, and I do believe Get Out has a stronger impact with an audience that goes in cold, but this film is incredibly well made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it turning up on college syllabi in a year or so as an example of what genre filmmaking can accomplish when it’s crafted thoughtfully. The great joy of genre work – and horror specifically – is that it allows the audience to dip their toes into situations that scare them and come out the other side unharmed. No matter what happens to the characters in the film, the audience survives. And in some ways, the audience wins. They have faced their fear – be it giant monsters, a serial killer in a mask, or the more abstracted anxiety about what might be hiding in the dark – and by making it to the end of the story, they have both engaged with and conquered that fear.
That being said, the majority of protagonists – the characters that the audience is meant to connect and empathize with – who view the tragedy and endure whatever scary things the movie throws at them, are generally straight white men. (Slasher films, with their iconic Final Girls, are another matter all together). There have been exceptions over the years, but as with the majority of Hollywood films, American horror tends toward the experiences of the straight, white middle class. This makes it a wonderful place to subvert those trends using the very same tropes that define the genre.
Let’s back up a step. Horror films, like any work of genre filmmaking, are easily recognizable as such – usually within the first scene. Our protagonist is put in a situation of peril and must either rise above their fear or then succumb to it. The threats are marked and recognizable to the audience if not the characters themselves and so viewers can always place themselves within a film. The villains will be recognizably sinister, basements and attics will inevitably become a small, homegrown version of hell. It’s a tried and true formula, well known even to those who don’t pay much attention to the genre. So well known, in fact, that it only takes a few changes to subvert the dominant narrative and add something unexpected to the story.
The genius of Get Out is that, quite simply, it’s a horror film that forces the audience to empathize with its protagonist. It sounds simple until you realize that Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris is a careful rebuttal of nearly every stereotype of black masculinity commonly portrayed in horror. Far from being the implacable bruiser, Chris is a thoughtful artist, uneasy and alienated within his surroundings, and – most importantly – openly fearful. He is a human being first and foremost, and his sense of isolation and confusion make him an empathetic one. Quite simply, this is not a course generally taken with black characters in horror. Chris is shown to be afraid because he is in a frightening situation. And in a better world, this wouldn’t be a radical notion at all.
As the stakes heighten and the true horror of his situation begins to dawn on Chris, he seeks out comfort and understanding from the few non-white characters he encounters, looking for common ground and never quite finding it. A white audience member might never have experienced this feeling before, but the film forces them to identify with the acute alienation and melancholy that Chris feels; he wants to belong and feel comfortable with these people, but cannot. His blackness is seen as a commodity to literally be bought and sold; his personhood is secondary, if it is recognized at all.
Get Out isn’t the first horror film to look at race as a commodity that can be taken, discounting the personhood of whoever the current victim happens to be. However, Get Out is the first one of these films that I’ve seen to look at it from a non-white perspective. The Skeleton Key (2005) and Jessebelle (2014) both concern victims of racial violence (a lynching and a hate crime respectively) who seek out and attempt to take over the lives of the white protagonists. In these films, the villainous black characters literally possess the bodies of the white protagonists. These possessions, done through supernatural rather than medical means as in Get Out, are explicitly described as acts of cruelty and violence by antagonists who wish to “pass” as white and occupy “white” spaces in society. Get Out, by contrast, treats blackness as a commodity that can be bought by the white antagonists simply for aesthetics without digging into any of the racial baggage that would come with it; a literal form of blackface. Chris and the other victims are treated more like clothing than human beings – their experiences are moot and it is literally the appearance of their bodies – their hair, their strength, their supposed athletic abilities – that makes them valuable. The fear of the black presence infecting white bodies that Skeleton Key and Jessebelle are concerned with is simply not present in Get Out.
All and all, Get Out is an incredibly well made movie. 10/10, Jordan Peele should continue making horror films, and this one is worth a rewatch. I intend to get in on DVD and you should too.