Jordan Peele has built a reputation for silliness and satire, first with the critically acclaimed sketch series “Key & Peele,” then with the wild and wonderful action-comedy “Keanu.” So some were shocked when the heralded funnyman announced his directorial debut would be a horror movie. But with “Get Out,” Peele finds a perfect home for his razor-sharp wit, and boundary-pushing brand of humor. Yet this isn’t some sort of genre parody like “Shaun of the Dead” or “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.” No, “Get Out” is something even harder to pull off — a blend of horror and humor that’s in turn terrifying and hilarious.
The film’s premise is deceptively simple: a young Black man named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) travels to upstate New York to visit with the family of his White girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). Trouble ensues in the form of uncomfortable cocktail parties with lots of rich White retirees, brushes with the befuddling Black servants, and an insidious suburban scheme.
Showing a deep appreciation for horror classics, Peele folds in allusions to films like “Deliverance,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Night of the Living Dead,” through iconography, plotting and a keenly placed ukulele. Yet these aren’t flashy signals of fan service, but subtle nods that’ll spike goosebumps across the flesh of deep-cut horror fans. Thematically, “Get Out” leans hard on 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” offering a modern twist on a parable that warns of smiling friends, whose secret hearts might yearn to do you harm. Likewise alluding to real-life horror stories of young Black men cut down on quiet streets, “Get Out” brings this sinister theme to new relevance, assuring it too will be regarded as a landmark of the genre. Allegory aside, Peele’s debut deserves that honor all the same, because it is sensationally scary.
Peele begins by grounding his film with compelling characters. English ingendude Kaluuya has an easy affability — and a convincing American accent — that pulls audiences in, and Williams’ warmth as she casually reminds Chris to pack his “cozy clothes” tugs us into their sweet relationship. Trouble is teased when he asks Rose if her parents know she’s dating a Black man, and she laughs off the implication by telling Chris her father “loves Obama” and “would vote for him a third time if he could.”
Yet things feel decidedly off when they arrive at the Armitage homestead. Rose’s family is a shade too courteous, having him waited on by an unblinkingly beaming maid (Betty Gabriel), and offering to cure Chris of his bad habits with some free hypnotism. Things only grow more disturbing as the family introduces Chris to the neighbors, who leer at his body, pontificate about his athletic prowess and prod into his sex life. Instead of making an easy target of rednecks in a rural town in the Deep South, Peele’s satire focuses on the softer brand of racism that has White women treating Black men as an exotic fetish, and White men assuming Black men have genetic advantages in sports. While not as vile as throwing slurs, such behavior is nonetheless dehumanizing, treating a Black man like an object to admire, and potentially possess.
As the second act turns more sinister and surreal, Peele’s cast manages a mean turn in tone. Shifting from devotedly diplomatic to survival mode, Kaluuya is riveting whether strapped to a chair and streaked with tears, or rallying with whatever weapon he can get his hands on in this tchotchke-stuffed mansion. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener go from embarrassing parents to stomach-churning villains with piercing twinkles in their eyes. Spinning a lacrosse stick and wielding a crooked smile, Caleb Landry Jones relishes the role of Rose’s vicious douchebag brother to Williams’ rattled-to-embattled Rose.
Supporting players Lakeith Stanfield, Marcus Henderson and Stephen Root offer unnerving turns in small roles. Yet the film’s most haunting performance comes from Gabriel, whose crying scene is instantly iconic. Asked a simple question meant to puncture the tension between the beatific maid and the uncomfortable boyfriend, she responds with a string of “No”s as if breaking down. But all the while, her wide smile never fades, even stretching wider, as tears stream out of her trembling eyes. If you had to distill the terror of “Get Out” in a single frame, it would be this.
Peele spins a story that’s laced with unsettling imagery, truly alarming jump scares, and revolting reveals that will twitch about your brain for hours and days after the credits have rolled. Yet for all this horror, there’s a lively thread of humor woven in, thanks in no small part to a subplot starring Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s best friend Rod, an overzealous TSA agent who trusts no one. While Chris is losing his grip on reality between ceramic teacups and microaggressions, Rod serves as audience stand-in, bellowing warnings from afar through phone calls. As Chris loses contact, Rod’s raucous investigation layers in jokes that give audiences a breath before it’ll be will ripped away again with another chilling reveal. All this builds to a climax that will have audiences scream with terror and laughter.
Simply put, “Get Out” is flat-out brilliant. Peele shows a rich knowledge of horror, and a sharp edge of humor that makes for a film that’s frightening, fun, and impossible to forget.
“Get Out” opens Feb. 24.