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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review: Get Out (2017)

* * * 1/2

Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Better late than never. At a time of the year when movie pundits debate which film best encapsulated the cultural feeling of 2017, Get Out seems to have the edge on claims of capturing the zeitgeist, though it may have an uphill battle in terms of gaining actual industry recognition, given that Hollywood is a very conservative industry that just happens to be full of prominent liberals who represent the exact kind of "white liberalism" that this film so perfectly skewers. Even when the industry does embrace it, a la the film's two Golden Globe nominations (though the Hollywood Foreign Press Association may better be described as "industry adjacent"), it does so in a way that suggests it doesn't really get it. I mean, Musical or Comedy? Get Out's final dialogue exchange is actually pretty hilarious, but there's really nothing funny about what Get Out has to say about race and violence.

Though generally classified as a horror movie, Get Out is the kind of horror movie that can be enjoyed by people who don't particularly like horror. It's not gory - even it's bloodiest scenes tend to be somewhat discrete in terms of what they show - and is instead propelled by the kind of slow burning feeling of dread that might better qualify it as a thriller. It begins with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) going to upstate New York with his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams) to spend a weekend with her parents, despite the warnings of his friend, Rod (Lil Rel Howery), and a bad omen in the form of a deer throwing itself into their car en route. Upon their arrival, Chris meets the rest of the Armitage family - Rose's parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) - as well as Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson), the housekeeper and groundskeeper who somehow manage to give off an even stranger vibe than the Armitages themselves.

For Chris, the psychological unease comes early and often. From the quickly escalating aggression coming from Jeremy, who is obsessed with Chris' body and its athletic possibilities, to Missy's air of quiet menace and her vocal desire to hypnotize him, ostensibly to help him quit smoking, to Dean's try-hard attempts to prove that he's down, telling Chris apropos nothing that he'd vote for Obama a third time if he could and pointing out the decorative elements of the house picked up during trips to various exotic locales (he just loves to experience other people's cultures, you see), the time spent with Rose's family is theater of discomfort, and that's before he and Rose learn that they've come to visit during the weekend when the family is hosting a large get-together at which Chris is subjected to a series of microaggressions which he handles with a level of grace that would qualify him for sainthood. But it's not the polite racism that doesn't recognize itself as racism that's throwing Chris off, it's the strange affect of the other black people he encounters: Georgina, Walter, and Logan (Lakeith Stanfield), a guest at the get-together who bears a strong resemblance to someone Rod knows to be a missing person.

Thematically Get Out touches on a lot of things - the thinly disguised racism of ostensibly progressive white people, the appropriation of black culture, the violence inflicted on black bodies without fear of punishment, the general lack of interest on the part of the media and the authorities when people of color go missing or are murdered, and slavery and the way that its legacy has continued to inform society, among many other things - and it does so in a way that makes it unmistakable, which is why I'm somewhat surprised that, as good and skillfully made as it is, it's getting so much recognition from so many different awarding bodies. Genre films in general tend to be easy for people to dismiss as "serious" (though Get Out has so many different elements to it - it's a bit horror, a bit thriller, it's funny in places, though I wouldn't personally describe it as a comedy - that it perhaps defies being reduced to a single genre), but when you combine that with the way that Get Out challenges the kinds of views that are still held by a lot of white people - that racism is an act of violence or overt discrimination driven by hate, while microaggressions driven by ignorance are something else that's not quite racism; that racism is an issue of geography or political affiliation, a "Southern problem" or a "conservative problem," rather than something born of social/institutional power - it's sort of amazing that it's been as successful as it has.

Maybe it's a sign that things actually are changing and becoming more inclusive (even if only slightly) and that the traditional gatekeepers of culture are losing their grip on power that a film like Get Out, in which supposedly progressive white people are deemed just as dangerous as openly racist ones, is garnering all sorts of awards whereas a film like Detroit, which is a good movie in certain respects but which definitely plays into the Hollywood tradition that narratives about the ways that black people have been made to suffer have to feature one or two characters who can be considered "good white people" so that white audiences can identify with them, is not. Ten years ago Detroit probably would have been one of the award frontrunners, while Get Out would probably have been a footnote, notable for its box office (because, for some reason, Hollywood is always surprised when audiences turn out for movies about people of color because it never occurs to the powers that be that people of color want to see themselves reflected onscreen), but not given serious consideration as one of the year's best because it doesn't fit the traditional paradigm of what an "awards worthy" movie is.

If that narrow view is actually changing, it can only be a good thing because the fact is that Get Out is a really good movie, one which is well crafted and executed and manages to shift through tones without feeling disjointed. Although the prologue to the story proper basically plays out the plot in miniature, writer/director Jordan Peele is nevertheless able to infuse the movie with this creeping feeling of dread which escalates from scene to scene and that basically leaves you thinking, "Yep, get out, get out now," as the film's protagonist tries to shrug off the strange vibe he's getting from everyone around him in the name of not making everyone else feel awkward by pointing it out. The film's screenplay is solid, and it's the element that seems most likely to garner an Oscar nomination, though I think that Get Out is ultimately a much better directed than it is written. The screenplay puts a lot of things right there on the surface, though to its credit it does so in a way that doesn't feel overly didactic, but it's Peele's direction, full of little flourishes and Easter eggs, that make each viewing all the richer and inspire some detective work on the part of the viewer to find something new each time. Get Out is definitely a movie of the moment, but it's also a movie so expertly made that it's going to be worth revisiting for years to come.

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