‘Get Out’ a shrewd probe of white liberal self-regard

For most of its running time, Get Out is one of the slyest, most daring pictures about American race relations. In an excellent debut, writer-actor Jordan Peele shoves every liberal piety into its white audiences face; Get Out is the movie to show the relatives who insist they’re not racist because they voted for Barack Obama and have a black friend. It’s as much Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as it is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepfather, and John Carpenter’s They Live yet the synthesis — the tonalities — are Peele’s own. On a $4 million budget Get Out has grossed more than $120 million. I understand why.

An early hint that Peele’s script and direction won’t follow the usual grooves occurs early in the picture: watching boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) pack for their weekend trip upstate to visit her parents, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) mentions that she hasn’t told them he’s black. Chris’ reaction — a weary I-should-have-guessed expression — is perfect. He’s all too familiar with this scenario yet willing to drop some of his wariness because Rose is so, well, liberal. So are Dean and Missy Rose. As played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, they’re so rich that they can’t bother with the stereotypes that inhibit poorer people. “We’re huggers,” Dean says to Chris on meeting them. Giving them a tour of their remote palatial manor Dean offers Chris the surest sign of his racial solidarity: he would’ve voted for Obama “a third time if he could.” Younger brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) offers a suggestion of menace. A long-haired, freckled, bloated shoe-in for a young Steve Bannon, he gets surly when Chris won’t wrastle with him after dinner. Another is the chilling subservience of maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel, playing obsequiousness like a master) and belligerence of groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson).

Peele puts his film making to pragmatic ends, undercutting the usual developments. Instead of shooting the Armitage family’s greeting of Chris in medium shot, he isolates them in extreme long slot and pans back, back until we realize it’s a POV shot of Walter, glowering. At first we think Peele is stressing Walter’s isolation as the only black man within ten miles of the house; developments later in the film erode even the idea of Walter’s existence itself (no spoiler coming). Those who’ve seen the picture will get why I laughed in the theater when Peele frames Rose in the kind of fussy composition that Kubrick or Tarkovsky adored — until the audience realize she’s googling “NCAA players.” The piece de resistance is a garden party for Rose’s grandfather, populated by Caucasian horrors in tweeds, hats and sports jackets; it’s the kind of affair at which guests get their jollies with sparklers and Bingo. Chris keeps his cool while he’s felt up, sized up, and praised for his athleticism (he’s a black man, you see). The eeriest encounter is with a martini-swilling black guest accompanying an older woman, whom Chris approaches with too obvious relief. Instead, Logan King (LaKeith Stanfield) comports himself like a parody of a Sidney Poitier character — that is, until Chris takes a quick photo to send his TSA buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery) dog sitting in the city.

Get Out‘s script depends on “untils.” What ensues is a grand joke on white moneyed isolation — a joke that sticks in the throat by the time the last fifteen minutes play. Peele aims Get Out at people too old for hip hop, who wince at black clothing, who are too damn uptight to admit what it’s in their hearts: they wish black people were more white. Hence why Catherine Keener’s Rose using hypnosis to, take an early benign example, kill Chris’ urge for nicotine is a delicious conceit: one morning Chris will wake up with no memory of being the person he once was (Keener uses her crinkled tones for wittily malicious effect). Kaluuya, whom I’ve never seen before, is a terrific hero; Chris’ can-you-believe-this-shit skepticism at the depths of white fatuity gets tested with each new horror. For a while I thought Howery was overacting the part of Rod, the audience surrogate putting together the pieces of mystery; then I realized I was responding like Dean and Missy might.

I suspect Get Out would have kept its resonance with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office, for her Chappaqua garden parties must be terrifying things too. In the Trump era, though, a body snatching tale in white suburbs sounds like an item I’d read in tomorrow’s Washington Post. For about an hour after I walked out of Get Out I thought the ending a disappointment. But Peele’s movie doesn’t forget how the sight of a blood-soaked black man standing over the corpse of a white woman can set every kind of historical alarm bell ringing. To watch a movie in 2017 made for less than Bradley Cooper’s asking price not just reject the self-regard of white neoliberals but affirm the righteousness of a government-run department, as Rod never stops doing, and to do it in so insistently vulgar an approach, is as impressive in its own way as the spontaneous rallies outside legislators’ offices. Flawed, deft, and very necessary, Get Out is the film I needed in March. I can’t wait for Peele’s next picture.


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