Get Out: Topical, but never quite nasty enough

Get Out, the striking new comedy-horror from debutant director Jordan Peele, starts with a scenario you’ve probably seen a hundred times before. Our pre-credit victim is walking home alone at night. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and they’re a little spooked. There’s not another soul around, apart from behind the wheel of the car pulling up ominously behind them. They try to take evasive action, but too late, their attacker is upon them…

The twist here is that the victim isn’t a young woman, he’s a respectable looking black man walking through a very safe-looking upscale leafy suburb. It’s a neat inversion of the whiskery old horror trope that cleverly sets the tone for what is to follow.

We meet our protagonist, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a successful black photographer, who’s getting ready for a weekend in the country with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time. He’s concerned that she hasn’t told them that he’s black; she can’t see why it would matter and besides, they’re not racist at all.

The Armitages are a pair of groovy fifty-something liberals, intelligent, professional and eager to seem hip. Father Dean (Bradley Whitford) gives Chris the Tour, over-enthusiastically trying to show how not racist he is. Mother Missy (Catherine Keener) is a little more watchful and tactful, but nevertheless is happy to welcome Chris into her home. Their awkward attempts to show how cool they are with their daughter dating a black guy creates tension, although that’s nothing compared to the clumsy cavalcade of racial faux pas headed his way from the Armitage’s friends at their annual garden party. This is the scariest and most subversive element of Get Out – the villains aren’t slobbering rednecks, they’re cheerful, urbane, and excruciatingly friendly.

Chris is uncomfortable, but is genuinely disturbed by the weird behaviour of the only other three black people in maybe a hundred miles. The Armitage’s housekeeper and gardener walk around like a pair of robots, and another party guest seemingly snaps out of a trance momentarily to shout the titular warning. Chris begins to suspect something sinister is going on.

Get Out (2017)

Directed by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener

Get Out works best in the first hour when it plays almost as a comedy manners, where we get to witness the build up of micro-aggressions through Chris’s eyes. Kaluuya is a very engaging lead, making it easy for us to fall into step with him immediately, and Peele is also clever enough to make the Armitages generally likable. As with his sketch show Key & Peele, the writer-director is adept at picking up the incidental details of life and spinning them out for comedy value.

It’s an assured debut from Peele. The camerawork is fluid and stylish without calling too much attention to itself, and he’s confident enough to stand back and let the story do the telling, resulting in a satisfyingly slow-burning first half. He ratchets up the sense of unease while comfortably delivering the laughs, throwing in the occasional jump scare to keep the viewer on their toes.

The thing with Peele’s writing is that it’s never quite nasty enough, especially given the topical and potentially controversial subject matter. Often in his sketches Peele will set up a joke beautifully then pass on the opportunity to really put the boot in, settling for a comfy laugh instead. This becomes a problem in the final act of Get Out, when it tips over into outright horror. It feels tacked on, as if he felt obliged to throw in some blood and guts to satisfy the hardcore genre fans.

It also feels rushed, and is where the film feels especially toothless. The violence leads it towards a natural conclusion that would’ve been perfect – except Peele chickened out and changed it. He had his reasons, but the choice was the difference between the occasionally inspired comedy-horror it is now, and the classic it could have been.

Despite its bungled conclusion, Get Out is still a hugely enjoyable film with some really interesting things to say about racism and how modern people deal with it. It’s a flawed debut, but Peele’s potential is there for all to see – it’s exciting to see such a new distinctive voice in cinema. This guy really might have a masterpiece in him, so I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.

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