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Get Out is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? with updated liberal hypocrisy and horror

The writer-director Jordan Peele has cleverly channelled the constant American conversation about race into a horror story. 

The poster for the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, in which a white woman surprised her avowedly liberal parents by bringing home her black fiance (Sidney Poitier, no less), rather earnestly proclaimed it “A love story for today". The new hit Get Out, which has taken more than $113m in the US in less than a month, serves much the same function for the horror genre. Racial tensions have suffused horror before now. The black American underclass got its monstrous revenge on white oppressors in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs, from 1991, and there was tart commentary on race relations as far back as Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The difference in Get Out is the depiction of liberalism as a new front for racism. White characters in the film happily sing the praises of Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Jesse Owens. Everything looks dandy from the outside, which only makes the racism more insidious and intractable.

The conversation about race that is a constant, complex part of American life has been channelled cleverly by the writer-director Jordan Peele (best known as one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele) into a scare-story about an African-American man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), who goes with his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), to stay with her parents for the weekend.

Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon, Mum (Catherine Keener) a therapist with a sideline in hypnosis. They welcome Chris enthusiastically. But there have already been signs that all is not well. The initial introduction on the porch is filmed not as a series of close-ups and reaction shots, as convention would dictate, but as one wide shot that keeps us at arm’s length before the camera pulls back even further to show that we have in fact been watching the whole encounter from the perspective of the black groundskeeper. If the assumed viewpoint is usually white (just as the gaze is traditionally male), that choice introduces a provocative wrinkle. We get to see how charged this situation might appear to African-American eyes.

There’s more. On the drive down, the couple accidentally hit and kill a deer, and Chris takes a moment to get out of the car and stare pitifully at the animal. The alternation between a close-up of the carcass and a close-up of Chris establishes some sort of unspecified kinship between them. So that when Rose’s father later says, “I see a dead deer at the side of the road and I think, ‘That’s a start,’” we are already primed to wonder if he isn’t really talking about deer at all. The script is adept at planting those seeds of doubt and at understanding how the loaded racist dialogue works—how what we seem to be talking about (roadkill, in this instance) is not really the subject of the conversation.

The suspense is effectively sustained for the whole first half of the movie, with Peele never quite showing his hand. Yes, it’s odd that the staff at the house are all black, and that the family’s white friends are almost ludicrously interested in Chris and “the black experience". But the film doesn’t let the air leak out of its premise until Chris and Rose become panicked and decide to leave. From there, things get crazy. How crazy? Well, it’s saying something when the young actor Caleb Landry Jones, renowned for his scenery-chewing turns in the likes of War on Everyone and Byzantium, is not the most doolally thing in the movie.

Get Out is half a very good film. There is simply too much explaining to do, too many dots to join, for it to sustain its tension. This can happen to the best thrillers or horror movies, so it’s no slight on Peele, a first-time director, that he isn’t able to hold it all together. If the disappointment is that bit keener, this must be because the bar has been set so high in the first half,. The questions posed demand more convincing answers than the ones provided here.

Peele makes some significantly poor choices, too, not least in his promotion of a minor, irritating character from comic relief to budding hero. (That may be his comic background getting the better of his directing career: he overvalues the part that humour has to play.) There is a clunky moment late in the day when the film threatens briefly to turn into The Man with Two Brains, as well as a key special effect that has been swiped without any effort at concealment from Under the Skin. And rather than plump for the savagely realistic outcome which is staring him in the face, Peele chooses to finish on a throwaway comic note. It makes you wonder why he expended so much effort putting the frighteners up his audience if all he wanted was to send them home with a spring in their step.

Get Out opens on Friday.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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