Friday, February 24, 2017

You Don't Have To Go Home But You
Gotta Get The Hell On Out Of Here

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris in Jordan Peele's horror film on racism and white America, "Get Out".

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, February 24, 2017

There's "Imitation Of Life", "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?" and "Jungle Fever", all horror films to a degree, but there's never been anything like Jordan Peele's "Get Out", a horror film with an original premise that's both clever and resonant. 

Designed as an allegory of American racism inflicted by whites against Blacks, Mr. Peele's intense film deliberately avoids denoting time and place to its events as it charts Chris's (Daniel Kaluuya) visit to the estate of his white girlfriend Rose's (Allison Williams) parents, Missy and Dean Armitage, a nauseatingly faux-ingratiating couple (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford).  These aren't The Taylors from Mayberry or The Olsons from The Prairie.  These "liberal" whites represent hierarchy, patronage, privilege and generations of white supremacy, dominance and colonisation, accompanied by gentle smiles and tense, awkward hospitality.  They struggle to reign in a son (Caleb Landry Jones) who is an attack dog whose leash has almost come undone.

The road to good intentions in a horror film are paved with Hitchcockian red herrings, yet Mr. Peele eschews them, getting straight to the point in "Get Out", using everyday occurrences that for Black people are commonplace horrors.  A white police officer asking for I.D. on a (deserted) stretch of road.  (A Sandra Bland evocation.)  A racist stereoytpe question posed to Chris.  A white man's assumption of achieving race-based solidarity.  These interactions are casual and indicting, casting cumulative blows to Chris's and the Black moviegoer's conscience.  It's undeniably effective filmmaking by Mr. Peele, part of the Key & Peele comedy duo. 

Chris's good friend Rodney (Lil Rel Howrey), a TSA officer, is the comic conscience of "Get Out" - the type who shouts at foolhardy movie characters not to go into those woods to see where a bloodcurdling scream originated.  Mr. Howrey looks as if he's in a different movie from the other actors.  He's so good that he often throws "Get Out" slightly off-kilter.  "Get Out" livens and warms to his sunny, sharp presence and comic timing, both a comfort and departure from the film's heavier doses of medicine on race and racism in America.  Rodney is an exhale for much of the film's white audience.

There's an excellent moment, the best in "Get Out", that delivers a truth about oppressed classes and a symbolic denial of freedom in service of patriarchy.  It's a delicately subtle but a powerful part of Mr. Peele's directorial debut.  Despite some flourishes "Get Out" is indeed a more psychological than visceral horror film, which underscores its staggeringly penetrative effect.  I was left with a sledgehammer to my psyche, one I'm still finding hard to eradicate. 

As a Black man I live traumatic experiences of racism daily - horrors on varying scales (most recently, an ordeal with a delayed taking of a food order at Nob Hill Cafe in San Francisco).  There's immense silence and isolation Chris feels throughout his visit to white suburbia.  Chris is forever framed as quarry in a lair of predatory and duplicitous white people.  I feel that same isolation whenever I experience racism and racist behavior.  Mr. Kaluuya's open features and malleable expressions are so plaintive, and he successfully renders Chris's genuine terror at being trapped in a hell that is impossible to escape.  He gives a Black man permission to be scared, to be human and to be vulnerable -- and this is an extreme rarity in a horror movie.

The Black people Chris encounters at the suburban mansion are trancelike servants far more sonambulent or obedient than Hattie McDaniel, Willie Best or Stepin Fetchit or their alter egos.  The zombielike House Negroes of "Get Out" are smarter than their pained, frozen expressions may suggest.  They are enslaved, exhausted players in yesterday's minstrel show, performers of their own discomfort the very discomfort simultaneously enabling Missy's and Dean's false self-reassurance in their own fragile, dysfunctional condition of power.  Especially scary is the Stepford-like housekeeper (an excellent Betty Gabriel, robotic as Georgina).  She is memorable in a close-up that gave me the creeps and conveyed a sense of her own private history and struggles.  A truth burns right through Georgina in that close-up, a truth Ms. Gabriel conveys in such an expressive manner that was unmistakable and had me shivering.

Mr. Peele, an African-American who is married to a white woman (comedian Chelsea Peretti), takes care to make Mr. Kaluuya and Ms. Williams as discreetly sexualized as possible.  Their romantic interludes are kept abbreviated and at a bare minimum in "Get Out".  The sphere of operation in the Chris-Rose relationship is polite, genial and surface at best, with cliches, sarcasm, ignorance and stereotypes peppering their exchanges and much of the film's -- sterotypes which for better or worse are the object of tension-relieving comedy.  Still, the choreography of movement in a scene where Rose comforts Chris is an interesting optical illusion I will have to look closely at when I revisit this fine film again very soon.

Despite funny moments which weren't laugh-out loud funny for me, Mr. Peele is clearly and refreshingly serious about his intent and point of view.  To be a Black man or Black woman in America has perpetually meant living life balanced precariously on a pendulum swinging between horror, terror, discomfort, tension, superficiality and uncertainty vis-a-vis white counterparts even in the best of times.  "Get Out" crystallizes this frenzied, traumatic state of existence in a uniquely fashioned way and it works, sometimes devastatingly, for the horror genre.  "Get Out" forms no illusions about the character whose experiences it inherits. 

That said, the one missing variable of "Get Out", despite its effective critique and crushing truths about American racial interactions - its physical, psychosexual, possessory, patronizing, placating and violent ones - is that the film's white characters aren't sufficiently challenged or their insecurities laid bare.  Throughout they are pantomimed, and pantomime villains - inevitable in a horror film - but aren't made to face accountability.  The film's white characters aren't examined or indicted for their racist ways.  Their sytemic behaviors and traditions are the rule, and that is the true horror that lingers throughout and beyond "Get Out".  (That Dean is a neurosurgeon and Missy is a psychiatrist/hypnotist could be the director's smart, satirical way of signaling the fog of white delusion, privilege and cluelessness around racism.)

The violence "Get Out" reverts to is akin to an escape hatch, a death sentence that lets off the likes of Dylann Roof.  Though expedient it all seems a huge conceit, and the brilliant conceptualizations and atmospheric, even langourously seductive stagings of metaphorical socioeconomic chasm are subverted and uprooted by the violence that surely has to come.  Mr. Peele has triumphed nonetheless, and "Get Out" offers a thoughtful, inventive, entertaining and utterly riveting experience for horror fans, social commentators and moviegoers alike.  

Also with: Lakeith Stanfield, Marcus Henderson, Stephen Root, Caren L. Larkey, John Wilmot, Ashley LeConte Campbell, Julie Ann Doan, Geraldine Singer, Richard Herd.

"Get Out", which opened in theaters today across the U.S. and Canada, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references.  The film's running time is one hour and 44 minutes.

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