The ridiculously gifted writer-comedian-actor Jordan Peele dished out five seasons of comic brilliance on one of TV’s all-time great sketch shows Key & Peele, in which he and partner Keegan-Michael Key skewered everything from the KKK to Liam Neeson, from Latino gangbangers to Obama’s refusal to show genuine anger. Considering Peele’s penchant for the sharp, the topical, the awkward and, especially, the painful, it’s no surprise that he’s written and directed something funny, scary and biting—the racially charged horror movie Get Out. At first the movie plays like a head-on collision of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Annie Hall; then it slowly but surely curdles and deepens with the addition of tasty licks from Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Coma and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The layup is simple and satisfying. A photographer named Chris (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya of Atlanta) gets invited by his WASP-y, lock-jawed liberal girlfriend Rose (the also-excellent Allison Williams of Girls) to the girl’s family estate to meet her parents. It seems that Rose hasn’t told her neurosurgeon father Dean and psychiatrist mother Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) that Chris is black. She insists the revelation won’t be a biggie because her parents are chill. In fact, her dad was so into Obama, she says, he would have voted for him for a third term.
Once they meet, the parental units appear to be amiable and friendly enough—from the viewpoint of a white liberal, anyway. Missy can’t wait to put Chris under hypnosis, ostensibly to help him kick his cigarette addiction. Scarily, she does it against his will and the session also reveals Chris’ emotional vulnerabilities—hangovers from a tragic family history. Meanwhile, the edgy Dean can’t seem to stop himself from saying weirdly inappropriate things about African-Americans. And on the sidelines of the estate, what’s the deal with the robotically weird black groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and hollow-eyed housekeeper (Betty Gabriel), both of whom bristle with menace? And let’s not even start on Rose’s deeply strange and confrontational younger brother (Caleb Landry Jones).
Before Peele gets to the big, not necessarily surprising reveal and the massively satisfying revenge-horror thrill ride that comprises the movie’s second half, he shows such smart control of tone (just slightly off) and pace (slow, steady) that even a garden party feels wildly queasy and menacing—then again, all of the party’s overly friendly white guests say outrageously awkward things about black people. Peele has dubbed his movie a “social thriller” and he’s right on the mark. Like all powerful horror and suspense films, Get Out takes everyday fears and tensions and nudges them into the nightmarish. Peele also knows just when and how to slacken the tension with a good belly laugh, many of which are supplied by LilRel Howery, a scene-stealer as Chris’ motor-mouthed TSA agent friend and weekend dogsitter.
A weird and delicious surprise, Get Out subverts the tired clichés and freshens up the horror game in all kinds of surprising—and surprisingly stinging—ways.