Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Well, at least it explains Ben Carson


An above-average horror-thriller with some real shit on its mind.  But just because it's capital-I Important doesn't mean we get to overlook the growing pains for a first-time director who, as far as I know, has never even set foot in this genre before now.

Written and directed by Jordan Peele
With Daniel Kaluuya (Chris Washington), LilRel Howery (Rod Williams), Allison Williams (Rose Armitage), Caleb Landry Jones (Jeremy Armitage), Bradley Whitford (Dean Armitage), and Catherine Keener (Missy Armitage)

Spoiler alert: somewhere between moderate and high

The thing that can't be overstated here—fortunately, since every single review must mention it—is that Jordan Peele's feature directorial debut is certainly of its moment.  With a plot that revolves around secret evil white people, and only secret evil white people, and an allegory that comes within inches of shrieking "miscegenator!", only from the other direction, I guess it is hard to say that, this time, us crackers didn't earn it.

But Get Out can more-or-less get away with the pricklier aspects of its construction, because it's a horror film, and horror films have a certain privilege (there's that word, and promise I won't use it again): namely, you can excuse all sorts of unpleasantly uncomfortable subtexts as long as you've got a sufficiently thrilling text.  On that surface level, Get Out's main plot works rather well, and this remains the case even if it's joined here by a dire subplot that keeps rudely intruding upon the main plot in the clumsiest, dumbest-assed way it possibly could.  But more on that later.  For now, let's meet our hero.

Chris Washington's a normal Millennial guy, except that he's employed in a job that matches his talent, as some kind of artsy photographer.  He's also black, which is important.  He's dating a certain Rose Armitage, who's white; and this too is important.  They're in love, and so the obvious next step is for Chris to meet Rose's family, involving a trip to the deep upper-middle-class woods, where the Armitage clan has built their isolated mansion.  Nothing bad ever happens in places like this in the pictures; though one of Get Out's more subliminal charms is the recasting of the sinister Gothic fastness in the wilderness (for, make no mistake, that's exactly what this is) as a cozy country home.

Chris is uneasy—for starters, Rose hasn't mentioned to her parents that he's black, though in 2017 she wouldn't have to, because she's already taken half a million pictures of them together, and either posted a substantial fraction of them to Facebook, or sent them to her mom directly.  Nevertheless, she assures him that there's no way they'd have a problem with his race; her father, Dean, asserts he'd have voted for Obama for a third term.  Aside from being an odd thing to say to a guy you just met, it's an even more subtle tell than that—because, as we've recently learned, evil white people actually hate the U.S. Constitution, presumably including Amendment XXII.

And yes, the Armitages are almost assaultive in their bizarre, microaggressive compulsion to keep pointing out, "We're white, you're not, but this is why that shouldn't make you uncomfortable."  (As for Rose's martial arts-obsessed brother, Jeremy, you can drop the "almost.")  Making matters more distressing still, the Armitage's servants are black themselves, which would probably come off as just one more rankling example of America's problems with race and class, if Georgina and Walter simply weren't so fucking off, dressing like it's still the 1960s and borderline-incapable of having a human conversation.  And if that wasn't enough for our hero, the Armitages are playing host this weekend to a family get-together—Rose just forgot, silly Rose!—which means Chris gets to deal with two dozen more honkies and all their annoying questions about blackness, along with one strangely random black guy who's arrived with them—and who, not to put too fine a point on it, doesn't seem all that black.

Hard to say.  Dude says he's from Brooklyn.  Looks like it checks it out.

In the midst of all this stress, Chris is having the damnedest time trying to quit smoking—wouldn't you?—but, to help him, there's Rose's mom Missy, who just so happens to be a hypnotist of no meager skill.  And you can see the basic shape of what happens next already.

It's too much to say that Get Out's first half is the superior one—but it is probably the better-built half.  It takes on a meet-the-parents scenario, already a trial in the best of circumstances (and a nightmare in the context of Get Out's heaping helping of sub rosa, "white liberal" racism), and then it begins to slowly ratchet up its more overtly horrific elements alongside all the normal tensions inherent to it—though the film's cold open already gave us full-tilt horror right out of the gate, involving a black man in a white neighborhood snatched right up off the street by a masked assailant in a (white) Porsche.  All the better to cast a long pall over even the most innocuous faux pas.  It's a funny movie—Peele, you know, has some experience in comedy—but it's a cringing, discomfiting sort of funny.

The second half, meanwhile, is obliged to reveal the secrets behind our mystery, and to go good old-fashioned horror-flick batshit.

Before people actually saw it, Get Out had a tendency to be described as The Stepford Blacks, which, to its credit, it isn't.  It goes to weirder places than that.  Obviously, it's for the best that this movie still has some surprises—which was hardly guaranteed, considering its premise (not to even mention its extremely revealing trailer)—but going weird is Get Out's canny misdirection, to try to keep you from realizing that it's doing its level best to take on every last form of white supremacy it can think of.  It even comes close to succeeding, snagging in its allegorical net both slavery (because, no matter how you slice it, this movie is definitely about slavery, and that's no spoiler), and all the littler things, as well, like the appropriation of black culture and the fetishization of black bodies.  Frankly, however, I'm of two minds about it, for once we get to where we're going, Get Out muddles its metaphors more than any movie really ought to, even when it muddles them in a really interesting way.  (On the other hand, I do want you to pay strict attention to how Georgina and Walter act before we figure out what's actually happened to them, and then I want you to explain how their malfunctioning-robot shtick makes sense in the context of Get Out's big reveal.)  Incidentally, if you noticed I put "white liberal" in quotes up there, it's because that's not actually what we're dealing with here, regardless of whether Get Out was originally written with a presumption of a Clinton presidency in mind, rather than the Trump one we got.  This movie is about much nastier affronts than that time I asked my (black) ex-girlfriend to grow her hair out because I thought it'd look cool.

So that's the well-taken lecture buried inside this horror movie.  But that does still leave us with a horror movie to talk about.  It's a good one, albeit exceptional only in one salient way: whatever else it does right, Get Out can boast about joining the ranks of Spellbound and Trance for the most beautifully nonsensical Movie Hyptonism you'll ever see, driven by phantasmogoric images of descent alongside a particularly great piece of sound design, that could only ever be in the movies.  (Because if Catherine Keener came up to you in real life and kept gently scraping the side of her little teacup for two minutes straight, you'd realize eventually that someone was trying to put you under.)  Indeed, if you somehow only watched the parts where Chris is cast down into "the Sunken Place," you'd assume Get Out was a much more assured feature debut than it actually turns out to be.

Other than those delirious hypnotic episodes, however, it's apparent enough that Get Out was made by a writer-director concerned mostly with merely translating his story into workable images.  (Okay, I'm being a little unfair: for example, there's a very good piece of cross-cutting, as the film turns toward its second half, involving a certain silent "bingo game"; and it's certainly worth mentioning that Peele pulls uniformly good turns out of his actors.  All except audience identification figure Chris wind up heightened to the point that they only could work in a horror movie—though I mean this as a compliment—whereas Daniel Kaluuya's lead performance is probably the best this show's got, an endless collection of skeptical looks that always organically melt into disappointment when white folks can't even live up to his lowest expectations.)

Still, the overall impression is one of the director coming up with good ideas, and dropping them slightly haphazardly into an otherwise fairly quotidian film.  A quotidian approach is not necessarily a bad thing—overall, it's neutral—although what I think it means is that Peele relied on his cinematographer more than a director usually might, and, inevitably, the bulk of journeyman Toby Oliver's photography is straight out of the Contemporary Horror Movie Style Guide (slow, creepy dolly shots; overpowering closeups; everything encased in a chilly digital sheen), whereas the one stand-out bit of camerawork here, in the prologue, reads simultaneously as an homage to It Follows (too soon) and as a line on Oliver's c.v., reading, "I can do long takes."  (Not to knock it for what it is, though: It Follows used the device of an increasingly-panicked camera following a doomed victim of unknown forces precisely because it's so effective.)  Further, I don't know who decided this R-rated horror movie shouldn't have much blood, but it doesn't; it can do spine-tingling, but considering where it ends up, would it be too much to ask for it to do splatter, too?  That said, Get Out does have one conceptually excellent kill—involving a nice visual motif that's been following Chris around the whole movie—and I don't think I can say I've seen its like before.

The real giveaway that Get Out is a first-time effort, however, is the inconsistency, specifically when it comes to that cursed subplot I alluded to 1500 words ago, and am now at last ready to discuss.  So: between this and Split, 2017 is shaping up to the year that Scatman Crothers finally got back to the Overlook Hotel, and made everybody pay for his mistreatment.

I'll give Get Out this much: Chris' friend back in the city, Rod, delivers the film one of its choicest moments, right at the tail end, misdirecting you for a moment into believing that this is a much dourer motion picture than it is, which would be exceedingly dour indeed.  (At first, I thought it was a wrongheaded move, but that's probably because I'm an evil white liberal who demands my catharsis be paid for with black lives.  I've since decided that either way Get Out chose to end would've been pretty great; but it's the gentler finale it goes with, and while horror movies typically have the luxury of getting to finish with tragedy and still be fun, I'm responsive to the argument that this particular horror movie couldn't have been if it had.)

The thing is, all of Rod's other scenes exist solely to justify his last one, and Peele—being Peele, I suppose—had no idea what to fill them up with, except comedy, which works as long as we're in the movie's early goings, and everyone's still living their normal lives, but becomes increasingly nails-on-chalkboard-obnoxious once the movie starts getting horrifying in earnest, with the added bonus of piercing the airtight tension of Chris' situation upstate.  (It would be damaging enough if it were funny; but Rod's sequences would've been the least funny parts of Peele's previous screenwriting effort, the actual comedy Keanu.  Also, a "heroic TSA agent"?  That seems like an alternative fact.)

Perversely, I'm almost pleased with LilRel Howery's shenanigans.  Otherwise, it would've been hard to decide if Get Out was a great movie or just a good one; now, it's trivial.  It's not like his character's the only manifestation of inexperience—the inability to completely cohere the plot Peele wrote with the creepiness Peele wanted to get out of the servants is a second; the inexplicably weird moment at the end where Chris has figured everything out, then seems to immediately forget about what he's just discovered, is a third.  But there's potential here (much of it, admittedly, already paid off).  Honestly, I don't know if Peele has any interest in returning to horror—I'd guess he's made his statement, and he's done.  I don't even know if he has any abiding interesting in growing as a filmmaker.  But I'm interested in seeing what he does next.

Plus, if it makes him happy at all, he's my new favorite member of Key & Peele; which was not at all true before I saw his movie.

Score: 7/10


  1. Yeah, GET OUT isn't QUITE as good as the adulation it has received, even though it's very good, but I'm so happy this film has drawn the attention away from SPLIT.

    My biggest takeaway is that the world should worship Betty Gabriel, who played Georgina the maid. She's a new addition to the Blumhouse stable and she kills it every single time.


    1. Just to beat the dead horse: I cannot figure out why Peele thought that the farcical TSA agent was a good idea. I mean, I get it--I get what he's doing, and the commentary he's making there--but the whole bit is a step above a Scary Movie, whereas the rest of Get Out is easily competitive with the better offers from our so-called Horror Renaissance.

      Anyway, Gabriel's good--effective--and at least her character makes more sense than Walter. I mean, who doesn't love doing angry windsprints at night? Oh, right, people.