In terms of essential premise walking in, Get Out is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is taking a road trip with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to meet her parents Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener). Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery) questions the decision, and Chris himself is uneasy, as he tells Rose–asking if they were warned in advance that he’s black. Rose assures him everything will be fine, if awkward–Dean will inevitably mention that he “would have voted for Obama a third time if he could”–and the trip out itself is only marred by an unexpected but common event on a drive through the woods. Upon arriving, Chris finds himself as alone as expected considering his race in the home of his white girlfriend.
At its core, Get Out is a melding of racial tensions and horror. This isn’t surprising, as writer/director Jordan Peele, as part of Key and Peele, has made his interest in both quite apparent. Even on Key & Peele, he and his partner in the show, Keegan-Michael Key openly profess their love of horror, as well as steeping many a sketch in broad horror conventions (tones, musical elements, particular shots, etc), plenty of which even do so in service of commenting on racially-invested perceptions. This is an almost-straight realization of that core concept, albeit with a Last House on the Left (the original, at least) styled interspersion of comic relief from Lil Rel as Chris’s friend.
Peele and company manage all of this admirably: Lil Rel’s comic roots are built into his character, not in terms of Rod being a stand-up comic himself, but in the sense that Rod is a character who addresses few things seriously, a kind of person plenty of us know (or are). That’s a pretty drastic improvement on, say, Craven and Cunningham’s over-the-top slapstick-y cops in Last House, while scripting a character who serves essentially the same purpose. The tension, too, is absolutely palpable: while I’ve heard it said that the movie is “predictable”, this is comes off as utterly intentional in most senses. If one isn’t expecting something of what’s to come, the turn will come so far out of left field (erm, no pun intended) as to seem completely unhinged. All the same, the constant discomfort of Chris is both visible and readily transferred to the audience, even for someone not directly familiar with what Chris is experiencing. Rose’s concern for Chris’s feelings, and his reluctance to state most of them openly works perfectly to the film’s aims, managing to keep the perfect balance between understanding Chris’s concerns and his dismissal thereof throughout.
While character and writing are extraordinarily important to maintaining the right tone and suspense in a good horror film, there are many other necessary tools, even if plenty of them blend somewhat into the writing. A good shot–establishing or otherwise–is very helpful in setting or propagating a tone, as you can see in the master class on such subtle choices in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Even moments like a sudden and unusual silence that didn’t quite get the jump or unsettling feeling that was the aim at least came off smoothly, with no tilt over the line into unpleasant cliché.
This doesn’t mean the film is absent problems–there’s a single, manipulative jump scare in place, which is frustrating simply because an effectively creepy shot would, in this rather peculiar context, be difficult to manage the effect of otherwise. There’s nothing quite equivalent to a lurking Michael Myers, so moments that are relatives of that kind of shooting need auditory cues to clarify that sensibility–otherwise they would be unremarkable. Still, it comes off very strangely because of the fact that there was not another such moment I could think of to even the tone of that choice out. Similarly splintering the mood a bit was a character I’ve yet to mention: Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). Jeremy is a deeply weird character, which seems to run counter to the intentions of Peele in formulating the movie–which is to emphasize the undercurrent of racism in modern society. This isn’t to say that that undercurrent is never blatant (here or in reality), so much as that Jeremy immediately comes off as a threat, when there’s no shortage of discomfort and unease without the need for that explicitness.
All that said, Peele did exceptional work for a first-time horror feature director–for all that there’s credit to be had in his experience working on his sketch comedy show and in Keanu, the cinematic language of horror is not something that falls out of a tree, as many an attempt readily illustrates. Helpful and insightful commentary on additional scenes (and an alternate ending) colours in the shades of the movie’s goals without seeming to reveal anything that wasn’t clear from the film itself–maybe it’s just the satisfaction of, “Aha! I thought that was what he was trying to do!” but that sense works to confirm that the viewing experience matches with the intent, which is rarely a bad thing. Hearing the logic behind the ending he chose for the film and the one that was also filmed was also quite interesting, in that it articulated pretty clearly everything I expected about the ending, and made me respect the choice made there even more than I already did in finding it the right choice.