3 stars (out of 4)
A great horror flick is supposed to prey on your worst fears. An ordinary situation — say, going to sleepaway camp or babysitting — is suddenly turned into a heart-stopping, gasping-for-air experience. It doesn’t usually also serve as a biting commentary on current race relations in America.
Enter Jordan Peele. The cocreator of the award-winning Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele has written and directed a remarkably inventive film sure to get people talking for all the right reasons. From a genre perspective, it’s nothing short of groundbreaking in how it tackles taboos. And it’s scary good times.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) have been dating for about three months. Now they’re off to the suburbs to visit her parents at their lake house. “Do they know I’m black?” he asks her early on. “It’s no big deal,” she reassures him. “My dad would have voted for Barack Obama three times if he could have!”
The trip gets off to an auspicious start. Chris and Rose accidentally hit a deer en route and the white cop called to the scene gives Chris a hard time. Even after they arrive at the property, Chris feels out of sorts. Sure, Rose’s folks (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are perfectly hospitable. But they’re oddly fixated on his race. Her dad uses phrases like “my man” and “boy” in a vaguely condescending manner. He still seems bitter that a relative lost a race to Jesse Owens back in the 1936 Olympics. He uses the phrase “black mold” as a threat. Weirder, they employ two African American servants, who both behave like zonked-out zombies prone to emotional outbursts.
Is Chris just paranoid because he’s an outsider or does he need to get out now while he’s still alive? Peele does a marvelous job at letting the mystery play out, as he illustrates the typical discomforts of being on an unfamiliar family’s turf for the first time. Surely all parties are inclined to be on their best behavior under the circumstances. When, say, Rose’s psychiatrist mom offers Chris hypnosis as a way of quitting smoking cold turkey, she must have good intentions. Right? Nobody would think that deep down, a far more sinister plan is being orchestrated. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that when Rose’s parents host a party for their friends, they’re all bourgeois white people who treat him like an exotic bird. Think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner crossed with The Stepford Wives. That is, a racially charged version in which the Stepford Wives brag to a black man about golfing with Tiger Woods.
It’s wise to consider this film as a social satire with some real scares, not the other way around. The truly frightening moments almost always lead to a sublime laugh. The practice is effective as a way to pump up the comedy — though occasionally, Peele could have afforded to just let the doom breathe on its own. The ominous scenes on the home front are often interspersed with comic relief, as one of Chris’ friends (LilRel Howery) hilariously tries to track him down. And after a few characters end up as corpses, Peele cuts to Williams blissfully listening to “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” — yep, the quintessential white suburban girl anthem from Dirty Dancing — on her headphones.
(The casting of Williams, in fact, is nothing short of inspired. At first, her Rose seems like just another variation of the toothless millennial princess we’ve come to know and not always love on Girls. Then Williams uses that persona and gives it one brutal twist.)
Only a master satirist could take audiences on an insane thrill ride and make us all think about society stereotyping along the way. Peele is married to fellow comedian Chelsea Peretti and, as such, he’s said he’s “uniquely equipped” to craft this story. What other issues are bubbling in his mind?
(Get Out opens in theaters Friday, February 24.)