*NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Get Out opens February 24th. *
You want to know what's scary? Visiting your girlfriend's parents for the first time. Want to know what's even scarier? Being a black man visiting your white girlfriend's family for the first time, especially when they know nothing about you. Jordan Peele, one half of Key & Peele, understands how terrifying that can be and uses it to brilliant effect in Get Out, one of the funniest, shocking, and accomplished horrors in recent memory. That he was able to pull this off in his directorial debut suggests he'll be weaving social commentary with genre thrills for a long time to come.
In what is like a violent, modern twist on the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner scenario, David Kaluuya (a standout in Sicario a couple years ago) plays Chris, an African-American man and photographer who agrees to spend the weekend at the post palacial estate of his white girlfriend, Rose (Girls star Allison Williams). Chris is understandably nervous having learned her parents don't know he's black, but goes along with it despite the warnings from his TSA buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who thinks they'll kidnap him and do some sex slave shit. However, when they arrive Rose's parents are perfectly pleasant if a little insensitive racially. Her father Dean (an unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) starts saying "My man" all of the sudden, and insists he would have voted for Obama a third time. Their mother Missy (Catherine Keener, somewhat against type) is a psychiatrist who seems embarrassed by her husband. It's suggested she use hypnosis, a technique she's well-versed in, to get Chris to quit smoking. He declines. We're smart enough to know that will get revisited at some point.
Going back to racial insensitivity, Peele has an understanding that many of the people who say things that are a little offensive may not be bad people. They may be perfectly nice but have no idea they are saying something offensive when they try to "sound black" or talk about black mens' sexual prowess. As Chris grows increasingly uncomfortable at these comments, we begin to wonder whether he's just being paranoid. Also in the mix is the aggression some blacks have towards other blacks who date outside the race, especially white women. Chris senses hostility from the all-black staff, who seem to be in a kind of Stepford Wives-esque stupor. Or is it just his imagination?
While Peele indulges in plenty of jump scares that would be irritating elsewhere, they are used to keep us as disoriented as Chris. While this is his debut behind the camera, Peele shows an adept hand at pacing out the film's many jokes with any messaging he hopes to deliver (and there is plenty). He even shows an unexpected visual flair, seen as Chris tumbles down a hypnotic wormhole that's like something from The Twilight Zone. He gets solid performances from his cast, although they mostly stick to the limitations of the genre. Keener puts a chilling spin on her typical role as the angry matriarch, while Kaluuya captures Chris' dawning understanding of the situation around him.
What unfolds in Get Out is best left to be experienced, but the film goes in directions that are both familiar and surprising. Peele embraces genre only when it serves the story and discards it at every other turn. This is a confident effort packed with scares and uncomfortable social commentary about race, power, and control. If Peele can continue to balance his critiques in other genres as skillfully as he does in Get Out, then we have a lot to look forward to.
Rating: 4 out of 5