The most exciting mainstream directorial debut in years comes courtesy of an unlikely source, in a surprising fashion, at an unexpected time: Jordan Peele, one-half of the Key & Peele duo has made a genuinely rousing horror-thriller that’s opening in theaters at the heart of a winter season usually reserved as a dumping ground for half-baked efforts.
“Get Out,” which manages the noteworthy and not-to-be-dismissed feat of being both consistently entertaining and smart, also represents the apex of the sort of social satire Peele and Keegan-Michael Key practiced on their show. It’s unafraid to delve into thorny questions of racial identity, to consider expansive and all-too-topical questions about American values as they’re personified in pop culture, while also featuring a supporting character who is a goofy TSA agent.
The movie takes a familiar trope in a decidedly unexpected direction when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer, leaves Brooklyn with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for a visit to her parents’ home upstate.
Peele, who also wrote the script, heightens the usual anxieties associated with this sort of a trip — already amplified thanks to the realities of a black man with a white girlfriend and a family who hadn’t been told about him — to the point where they’re genuinely unsettling.
Mom (Catherine Keener) is quiet and calm, but also a noted hypnotist who exudes a sinister vibe; Dad (Bradley Whitford), a neurosurgeon, is as awkward as dads can be, but in a fashion that approaches malevolence. They’re served by a black handyman, Walter (Marcus Henderson), and housekeeper (Betty Gabriel), who act and speak with such affected formality that it’s like they wandered out of a David Lynch movie.
The actors perfectly nail the difficult tone, and the ominous aura is further enhanced by fluid camerawork that builds tension by lingering on point-of-view shots and remaining close to Chris as his sense that something’s a bit off about all of this expands into greater and deeper fears.
There’s comic relief in the form of the aforementioned agent, Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), and his efforts to figure out what Chris has walked into, but the movie largely remains a focused and meticulously assembled house-of-horrors.
The hypnosis, insisted upon by Keener’s Missy, dredges up dark memories for the protagonist. A garden party, in which family friends and neighbors pepper Chris with uncomfortably stereotypical questions, becomes an increasingly surreal spectacle. It’s genuinely impossible to make sense of this, and Peele demonstrates an intuitive grasp of how to drop the sorts of clues necessary to keep an audience in suspense without tipping over into the sort of endless teasing without a payoff that derails a lot of Lynchian imitators.
It’s a top-level piece of escapist entertainment that has the added bonus of being far less escapist than one might expect. The villain in “Get Out” is, of course, racism, but not in an obvious Ku Klux Klan sense. The picture takes on a more familiar form that’s nonetheless insidious, offering a scalding take on the fetishization and otherness with which black people are too often perceived and depicted on an everyday basis. While it doesn’t offer any answers, it both thrills and makes you think.