It’s been some fifty years since we saw Duane Jones’ sole survivor Ben popped in the head by Southern fools at the end of George A. Romero’s horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, and therefore it’s been some fifty years since a horror film truly dealt with the implications of racism so clearly.
Horror films, at their best, can deal with complex issues and societal fears, the high watermark filmmakers being the likes of Wes Craven, George A Romero and John Carpenter. Here, Jordan Peele, one half of the comedy duo Key & Peele, carves out one of the wittiest and yes, scariest films in a long while.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to meet his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) family at their nice country estate. Despite some initial awkwardness, Chris hits off with her neurosurgeon father (Bradley Whitford), and therapist mother (Catherine Keener), but with the arrival of her brother (Caleb Landry Jones) and a big party looming, things take a strange, and horrifying turn.
Peele’s writer-director debut is one of the wittiest films of recent times, laced with some of the finest film references and broiling with racial tension. The Key & Peele writer is a clever man, and while there are elements of his own life — Peele is an African American, and married to a white woman, fellow comedian Chelsea Peretti — this is a film that really speaks to decades old issues.
While the set up has a very Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner vibe, and some of the beginning awkwardness calls to mind Meet the Parents, the film is always steeped in a tension that never lets up, with even the jokes fail to break the tension and instead make it all the worse. But it’s not just comedy and drama that Peele is referencing here; he’s throwing in classic works of horror fiction to give you a sense of the familiar.
As Chris, Daniel Kaluuya finally hits his leading man stride. Having toiled away in smaller parts in the UK, from Posh Kenneth in E4’s Skins, to Sicario and Kick-Ass 2, this is his first chance to really show his chops as a performer. and in his performance there is a real window into the struggles of the African American man, despite the horror of the film, the real uncomfortable scenes are him smiling through a police officer requesting I.D. and him just accepting it, or people calling to mind as many black celebrities as they can to make him feel comfortable. It’s not so much that Kaluuya is a leading male in a classic sense (though he is a total beefcake), he has less in common with the likes of Will Smith or Idris Elba than he does with Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker, as he’s comfortable with the delivery of simple dialogue.
Similarly Allison Williams, probably best known for starring in the hit series Girls is both likeable and near angelic as the overly understanding Rose. The camera loves her, and it’s not hard to see why, she’s a natural for the big screen, one of the rising actresses that will only grow in stature in the latter half of the decade. The trickle up effect that saw Ellen Page, Emma Stone and Elizabeth Olsen hit big, will surely come to offer Williams and other lady contemporaries Tessa Thompson and Callie Hernandez their shots at leading roles. In the quieter scenes between Williams and Kaluuya, there’s a sense of the Katherine Houghton/Sidney Poitier relationship, and of course in her early scenes Williams is a dead ringer for Jennifer Connelly.
As with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the girlfriend’s parents are the real heavy weights here. It’s no coincidence that Bradley Whitford is white haired with thick black glasses, nor that Catherine Keener is almost always in white, nor is it surprising when the two of them easily balance the horror elements with the comic elements. The two are pros, living legends who inhabit their surroundings. Both are clever people, able to flit between comedies, horror and political dramas without blinking, and help lull the audience into a false sense of security that only serves to build the tension.
Then of course, around them are sublime help from other actors who definitely pull their weight. Caleb Landry Jones looks like a dried out crack addict, his hair pulled into an awkward man-bun, his off-style puberty-stash and his sinister way of talking really quietly about nothing at all. He’s the preppy, prissy trust fund kid that you know owns a poster of American Psycho unironically. While Stephen Root is also good as a member of the society, his southern drawl fits so easily in, and of course it’s he who really offers the window into the world that Chris has entered.
But as Get Out is a film which deals with race, it’s the supporting black actors who really sell the film. Lil Rey Howery is laugh out loud funny as Chris’ big-mouthed friend Rod, who himself suspects that Rose’s family are into “white people sex slavery shit” and manages to be funny without becoming annoying, in fact it’s him who really keeps you invested when the film starts to slip into the really madcap. Betty Gabriel as housekeeper Georgina is an African American version of Nannette Newman’s character in The Stepford Wives, all smiles and well kept hair, but with something sinister underneath. LaKeith Standfield’s Logan in his out-of-fashion clothes, the only other black guest at the party resembles no one but Dule Hill’s Sam the Onion Man in the film adaptation of Holes, while it’s Marcus Henderson’s Walter, grinning, gurning gardener who offers sinister questions that brings the horror elements home. The house is basically the Overlook, but Walter is Scatman Crothers’ Dick Hallorann, he’s Delbert Grady.
The film is a triumph, with it’s political message, and it’s jokes coming thick and fast, but the tension, and the true horror works a treat. Peele understands the genre and understands that wit is better than gore (not that there’s isn’t gore), the film offers no clear answers, and it’d be hard to think of a sequel but this is further proof that a good film speaks to everyone. Will it play differently in different countries? Almost certainly. Will it have different meanings for different races? Of course. But the genius is that Peele has crafted a film that can be enjoyed by everyone, but will stay with you long after the haunting music fades out.