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.