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Get Out, a thrilling first feature by Jordan Peele (of the sketch comedy show Key & Peele) is both a racial satire and a horror film, and while it doesn’t quite succeed as either one, it ends up being more than the sum of its parts. It’s true that the satire isn’t quite thorough enough to really shift the viewer’s perspective, and the horror is mostly reliant on jump scares and other cheap conventions of the genre. Typically, that would be a recipe for failure, but Peele and his outstanding cast of actors pile jokes on top of scares until you give up trying to figure out exactly what the film is doing and sit back and enjoy one of the most entertaining and politically-bold studio films in recent memory.
Before it gets to the horror and satire, Get Out starts on even more comfortable ground as a Meet the Parents-style cringe comedy, with Rose (Alison Williams) preparing to bring her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home for the first time. He worries when he finds out she hasn’t told them that he’s black, but she ensures him it won’t be a problem. “My father would have voted for Obama for a third time if he could,” she reassures him. It shows how efficiently Peele establishes the film’s mood and themes that this remark feels more ominous than comforting.
When Chris and Rose arrive at her parents’ secluded estate, more warning signs appear. Rose’s father (Bradley Whitford) immediately starts calling Chris “my man.” Her brother (Caleb Landry Jones) is fixated on how good Chris would be at mixed martial arts, referencing his “genetic make-up.” The family also has two black servants who seem, well, a little off, and, oh, the flash from a cell phone camera seems to turn them into violent maniacs. For the sake of his relationship, Chris easily shrugs off these oddities, a move that comes easily to him.
He’s quick with a smile and a diffusing word. The phrase, “It’s no big deal,” slides off his tongue as if he has already spent a lifetime dealing with subtle prejudice from liberal whites. By the time the blood starts spilling, Peele has sensationally dramatized what can happen when casual racism goes excused.
Holding this bit of madness together is a tremendous cast that Peele has assembled from recent indie gems. Caleb Landry Jones was plucked from the 2014 indie Heaven Knows What, in which he played a junkie with such raw intensity that he fit in amongst a cast of unknown, actual addicts. Here, he brings a bizarre, arresting energy to the jock brother archetype. The up-and-coming Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12) shows up as the rare African-American in the all-white community and nearly steals the movie with his tragic, intentionally-stilted performance. Meanwhile, Alison Williams sneaks under the radar with a deceptively tricky role that should earn her more film work after HBO’s Girls ends this year.
The work of these actors is vital, since none of the characters are particularly well-defined. Luckily, Peele has chosen to work in the two genres—horror and satire—in which character development is not a prerequisite. Get Out doesn’t need complex characters to thrive. It gets plenty of mileage out of its laughs, frights, and a nuanced understanding of the racial moment it is satirizing. The only problem is that it may be a few months too late, as the post-racial society it seeks to expose already seems to many like a distant memory. Still, there is enough insight to make it required viewing. Any movie in which a young, black man uses his cell phone to save the day is one we should probably pay attention to.
Get Out opens Friday in theaters everywhere.