Get who's coming to dinner
(WARNING: plot twists and ending to be discussed in detail!)
Call Jordan Peele's sneaky-clever directorial debut Get Out his take on Stanley Kramer's insufferably benign racial warmedy Guess Who's Coming To Dinner with knives drawn out midway between the fish course and dessert. The politeness and civility are still there only like a pair of lips drawn taut to conceal fangs.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are visiting her parents Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (the always excellent Catherine Keener). His best friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery) warns him "don't go to a white girl parents' house"--an obvious line that nevertheless evokes a strong response from the viewers; when later in the film the line is repeated its meaning has expanded from caroming off the various loops and twists of the plot; the audience response as a result is bigger.
Critics wonder how such a funny guy (Peele is best known as half of the TV sketch comedy team Key and Peele) could be so adept at horror; watching this you wonder why they wonder. Get Out is basically a comedy sketch stretched to feature-film length, pushed (as Monty Python often would) into the realm of nightmare (in an interview with Forbes Magazine Peele compared comedy to horror: "So much of it is pacing, so much of it reveals." And as master not just of suspense but of comedy Alfred Hitchcock might put it so much the expert manipulation of viewers' expectations). The horror gives the comedy bite; the comedy helps spin the horror past viewers' defenses, to strike at their inner complacencies.
Certainly pacing is part of what makes Peele's film work. Get Out starts with Chris and Rose preparing for the drive to her parents' house (which looks as if it were set in a typical affluent American suburb somewhere in New England, but was shot in Alabama to take advantage of tax credits). We're lulled by their conversation, basically Chris' apprehension at visiting parents who still don't know he's black and Rose insisting he'll be all right ("my dad would vote for Obama for a third term if he could"); suddenly a car accident, a quick "WAKE UP!" moment that jolts you straight up in your seat, followed by an even better scene involving a police officer that treads the delicate line between nervous giggle and muted outrage.
Things progress slowly but surely from there: a guided tour of the Armitage home, including Walter the watchful black groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina the mysterious black housekeeper (Betty Gabriel). Aside from the faintly unsettling preponderance of black employees the household is as staunchly progressive as in any Kramer picture (Dean: "I'd vote for Obama for a third term if I could") only the many idealized details form what feels like the crust on a caramel brittle--you expect the fragile surface to shatter at any second.
The ultimate reveal is silly--think The Manchurian Candidate with a touch of Roger Corman-produced Poe--but what can you expect, given the premise and genre? At least Peele when he finally tips his hand does so with some verve and style: when Chris is unknowingly hypnotized Peele drops him into what Missy calls "the sunken place"--literally a claustrophobically deep hole that evokes both Ewan McGregor's drug trip in Trainspotting and (even better though not as successfully) Allan Gray's eerie coffin ride in Dreyer's classic Vampyr (Peele seems to know his horror films, and draws from some of the better ones). Later blue rubber is stretched round an anesthetized man's skull and as the saw bites down we see blood dribble behind the bright azure halo, a distancing yet oddly beautiful effect.
What's Peel trying to say? O any number of things: that the most liberal family can hide the most racist sentiments (they're just much more skilled at lying about it); that a black man's worse paranoid fears are at some level justified; that sometimes getting into a family's inner circle is easy--it's getting out that might prove more problematic.
The cast is excellent (love Keener's authoritative presence when stirring the tea in a cup) but Daniel Kaluuya truly stands out. I remember him from Black Mirror's "Fifteen Million Merits" where I thought he gave a tour de force performance; here he has to reflect the many twists of tone and circumstance in Peele's film and each magnified microsecond response is visible on his nakedly emotional face.
Get Out joins the collection of fairly innovative fairly subtle American horror films in recent years, a collection that would include (off the top of my head) David Robert Mitchell's It Follows which (a la John Carpenter) played on point-of-view, and (a la Hitchcock) managed the remarkable feat of making wide-open spaces agoraphobically terrifying; M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit and Split, which prove that old-fashioned virtues like effective plot twists or effective narrative hooks can still draw an audience; and Robert Eggers' The VVitch, which (again!) channels Dreyer (in this case Day of Wrath) to touch on some of our more primordial (sexual spiritual existential) fears.
The first great black horror-comedy? Not quite I think; Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger was more slyly funny more subtly horrific without for a moment betraying its carefully constructed realist surface. Peele has gone an amazing long way with his first major film; that said, he may still have some ways to go before we can call him a major artist.
First published in Businessworld 3.16.17