Dir. Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Lil Rel Howery
What I love about the shot above, when Chris (Kaluuya) is meeting his girlfriend’s family for the first time, is the distance. Peele comes back to distance again and again in this movie (more on that later), but this is an early instance of seeing something from far away and not being quite able to understand it. We can hear people chatting and oohing at one another. It sounds friendly, but we can’t tell. No one’s face is visible. We can’t see the crinkling of the outer eye that signifies genuine happiness in a smile. We can’t look at the curves of mouths, where eyebrows go. The entire frame may as well be out of focus for all we can tell. In other words, this is the perfect beginning for the mystery of Get Out, the story of a how a well-meaning young man has a dizzying weekend that chews him up and spits him out, all the while serving as a focal point to harpoon white liberals the same way Ahab tried to harpoon a white whale.
Get Out wins you over bit by bit, in the small details that make the movie incredibly funny and horribly realistic. Rose (Williams) drives a Lincoln. Her brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), mindlessly twirls a lacrosse stick. Missy (Catherine Keener) drinks tea out of her Delft blue china. Bradley Whitford is in this movie; aside from being cast perfectly in this role as a guy who spends most of his time making dad jokes and being awkward as heck, his West Wing past is a necessity. (I would have voted for Barack Obama a third time if I could, he says wistfully. It’s funny because Rose has already told Chris that he’d say that. It’s also funny because it’s exactly what Josh Lyman would have said about Obama thirty seconds before he would have rejoined Hillary Clinton.) Their last name is Armitage, which, come on. Peele does these little things without needing to call much attention to them; they stand out because he has primed you to look for things like that. His premise – a black guy dating a white girl is going to stay the weekend with her family – is clear even without Chris saying much about it. But Chris asks Rose if she’s told her parents that the guy she’s bringing home is black. She laughs him off. What, am I supposed to say “Chris, my black boyfriend” to my parents? she scoffs good-naturedly. Chris knows it matters. Rose must know it matters. The audience knows it matters. And yet no one has any good way to address it; it’s a nonverbal cue as liable to thwack you upside the head as the lacrosse stick.
For my money, the best nonverbal cue of the film is one that has virtually nothing to do with race, and thus gains its power from Peele’s ability to use it like a blank slate. When Chris has been effectively cornered by the Armitages, betrayed by Rose into the hands of her neurosurgeon father for a science experiment which mashes up Frankenstein and The Stepford Wives, Missy uses her own special sound to manipulate Chris, the trigger for the hypnosis she’s put him under. Tapping her spoon on a cup, Chris collapses into what she calls “the sunken place.” His mind is still working, but his body is completely paralyzed; all that’s left is a box that Chris appears to be slowly drifting away from while the Armitages look down at him. It’s the same idea, almost the same image, that Carl Theodor Dreyer used eighty-five years before in Vampyr. A young man on the cusp of literally uncovering a vampire has a strange vision during a dream; helpless, he is placed in a coffin and taken out of a church to be buried. A small window at the top of box allows him, and us, to see out; the camera cuts between his unmoving face and his perspective from the coffin. (Pardon the grainy texture of the following images – they come from YouTube and the movie is from 1932.)
Compare that with the scene itself from Get Out, which keeps several of the same elements while adding in a crucial new piece in distance. Chris’s estrangement from the Armitages, which has been building rapidly, becomes even move visible and irrevocable than it was before. The horror is less in the nearness of his captors, as it is in Vampyr, but in the receding helplessness Chris evinces as he screams and flails:
In both cases, the utter helplessness of the victim and his sudden, intractable paralysis are placed front and center. Neither Vampyr nor Get Out is strictly a horror movie – both are thrillers with an eye on the uncanny through unsettling intimations – but they still manage to give us the willies. The fear of not being able to save oneself is as powerful a fear as we can cope with. Our interaction with stories about horror is frequently based on pointing out the silliness of what the characters within them do. We would never go into that house, take a look in that closet, date that person; in short, we would save ourselves. We would have the power to do so. Get Out ends with Chris managing to save himself, thanks to a timely assist from his friend Rod (Howery), but the originally planned ending finds the limits of Chris’ considerable resourcefulness everywhere outside his fingertips. In the theater, Rod pulls a Han Solo; in an ending that has the capacity to give Get Out the same kind of amusingly confusing set of DVD releases that Brazil and Blade Runner are famous for, Chris successfully finishes Rose off by strangling her but is taken by the police. That ending, in my opinion, is like an antler in the throat, the kind of stuff that great movies are made of. Mr. TSA showing up in the nick of time, afraid that his friend has been turned into a white woman’s sex slave, is a stand-up-and-cheer moment in a movie that was doing much more interesting work before the shouting.
The conversations that Chris has over and over again during his weekend return to his skin color and, predictably, he never starts them. No one has more to say on that subject than Dean, who is the kind of performatively open-minded white guy that Martin Luther King had in mind when he wrote about “the white moderate.” He shows Chris a picture of his grandfather, who lost to Jesse Owens in a preliminary race and didn’t make the ’36 Olympics; Dean is the one who waxes on the importance of Owens, not Chris. Dean is the one who calls Obama the greatest president of his lifetime. Dean is the one who addresses the reason that his family has two black servants; he knows the optics are weird (and man, are the optics ever weird) and he feels like he needs to explain himself. Other people, like Jeremy and a former golfer, talk to Chris about athletics. Another fellow with a goatee being eaten by the fat on his chin says that black skin is “in fashion” after white was prevalent for centuries. Most interesting of all, Rose feels led to recap every microaggressive, mildly racist thing that her parents and brother have said to her boyfriend, apologizing profusely for their small-mindedness. Chris has the wry smile the whole time, as if to say “What did you expect?”
What the movie makes terribly clear is that white people are deeply uncomfortable around black people. In a movie that didn’t end the way this one does, that might be the joke over and over again; white people are uneasy around black people, either because of their guilt or their racism or some weird mixture of both. Perhaps there’s an element of unfamiliarity as well; for all of the ease Dean tries to put on for Chris, it could not be clearer that he doesn’t interact with black people besides the servants in his house. There’s a hitch to all of this: the white folks of Get Out, having a secret plan on their hands to put another person’s brain inside Chris’ body, aren’t a perfect corollary to real life. Their plan ensures that they won’t have to deal with Chris anymore in just a few hours, and so one imagines that guilt or racism matter less. In this small town full of rich people, the black men Rose ensnared for her father’s practice are folded into families with relative ease. The skin color is a signifier; it’s what’s in their heads that disconcerts the white people. More than that, it’s what needs to be replaced with whiteness; once Jim’s (scene-stealing Stephen Root) brain is in Chris’ body, everyone will be just fine with Chris. No one will make him feel awkward or out of place. They’ll know there’s a white man controlling every inch of him; that’s what it’ll take for everyone to settle down. From that point of view, “Get out!” is the best piece of advice anyone’s ever gotten in a movie.