Sunday, December 3, 2017

Welcome to Stepford

Film: Get Out
Format: HBO on hotel television.

When Get Out became the sudden darling of the movie world. I was intrigued. That happens with a horror movie now and then, and tends to happen with a horror movie that really deserves it. There was huge, worthy buzz surrounding films like It Follows, for instance, and while opinion is divided on The Blair Witch Project, there’s no denying that it was influential in no small part because of the huge sensation it caused. But, I don’t go to the theater that often. It’s been almost two years since I’ve sat down in a crowd to watch a film, and I knew that if it were big and important enough, it would show up on my television eventually. Well, it showed up on a hotel television, and that’s good enough for me.

Let’s first of all be honest about one thing: Get Out was hailed as being incredibly and fiercely original. It’s not. In many ways, it’s a racially-based riff on The Stepford Wives with a bit of Being John Malkovich thrown in for good measure. That’s simply true, and it also matters not in the least. That’s because Get Out feels incredibly new and original from the moment it starts to get a little odd to the third act when it spins into full-on, violent horror. Good filmmakers can make the old feel new and can give an old idea relevance in the modern world. That’s precisely what writer/director Jordan Peele has done here.

Photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) doesn’t really want to spend the weekend meeting the parents of his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). A big part of the reason for this is that Chris is black and Rose is very much not. She comes from a very wealthy, white family, and Chris is extremely nervous about how her parents might react to him. Rose convinces him that he has nothing to worry about, and the two go to her parents’ country estate in the middle of nowhere.

Initially, things are awkward. Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) are perhaps too welcoming, being enthusiastically and thus perhaps falsely pro-minority. It doesn’t help Chris’s discomfort in realizing that the two servants at the house, Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel) are both black. Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is also aggressive in his actions toward Chris. Minor things happen as well—Chris’s phone is frequently found unplugged, for instance. According to Chris’s friend, TSA agent Rod Williams (LilRel Howery), all of this is a plot to get Chris captured as a sex slave.

It’s not until Chris and Rose are there that we’re given some important information. Dean Armitage is a skilled neurosurgeon. Missy Armitage is a counsellor and hypnotist. Chris has no family. And this weekend is the weekend that the Armitages hold a massive party in memory of Dean’s father, and friends from all over will be attending. Missy hypnotizes Chris to break him of his smoking habit, and it seems to work, but he’s also not entirely sure if he’s fully free of any hypnotic suggestions.

This is where things start to get very strange. Chris has odd run-ins with both Walter and Georgina. All of the party guests are white, with the exception of Andrew Logan King (Lakeith Stanfield), who is attending with a white woman at least thirty years older than he is. Something about Logan feels oddly familiar to Chris as well, and when Chris snaps a picture of him, Logan seems to have some sort of seizure, and screams at Chris to get out.

I would love to continue here, but I’m going to stop the synopsis at this point. Get Out is the sort of film that really deserves to be experienced with the real meat of the plot unknown. It’s surprisingly complex for a horror movie, since horror typically is the sort of thing that can be easily summarized in a couple of sentences. Honestly, Get Out could be as well, but doing so would leave out layers of story and meaning, much of which ultimately comes back to the ideas of race, culture, cultural dominance, micro-aggression, and the subtle racism that pretty much everyone is culturally guilty of and of which we tend to be unaware.

There’s a lot to talk about here. First and foremost is something I’ve already mentioned. Jordan Peele took an idea that has been floating around for some time and built something from it that feels entirely new. Get Out has a foot firmly planted in the horror past, giving it a sort of credibility and context, and has its other foot planted squarely in the present and specifically in the American question of race and racial politics. It’s a brilliant reworking of a great idea, the sort of thing that feels new and exciting and still has those lingering connections to older fears and problems. It’s also difficult to fathom that this is Peele’s directorial debut. Get Out is a mature work from someone who has made mistakes in the director’s chair and learned from them, not the first feature-length release of an auteur.

And now the performances. There are a few here that are worth noting. First is Daniel Kaluuya, who has dome some work in the past, but is going to be remembered for (and get a lot of work because of) this role. Kaluuya feels natural and real on screen, and has the sort of instant likability that is enjoyed by actors like Tom Hanks. Kaluuya is easy to root for, and that’s a rare quality. It’s LilRel Howery who makes much of the film for me, though. Howery’s character is both competent and comic, and gives the film the comic relief it desperately needs at times. It’s also a good role for Catherine Keener, who needs more work. It sounds like an insult to say that Catherine Keener is the scariest thing in the film, but in this case, it’s a high compliment. Finally, I love seeing Lakeith Stanfield in just about anything. I’ve liked him in everything I’ve seen before, and he shows tremendous range. This is a guy who convincingly played Snoop Dogg and a streetwise orphan, and here, he couldn’t be less either of those.

Get Out may be new wine in an old bottle when you get right down to it, but it’s damn good wine, wholly relevant, and the bottle still looks fresh. If you haven’t seen this, see it.

Why to watch Get Out: It feels completely fresh and new…and terrifying.
Why not to watch: Dig a little deeper, and it’s a racial Stepford Wives.

6 comments:

  1. "...it’s a racially-based riff on The Stepford Wives with a bit of Being John Malkovich thrown in for good measure."

    Oho, the Keener Konnection!

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    1. True, but she's scary in a whole new way in this one.

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  2. Great point about this movie re-working some oft-used tropes and becoming "new wine in an old bottle." It is that re-working that makes the film work. I agree it also doesn't seem like the work of a first-time director. LilRel does not make the movie for me, but I appreciate the comic relief he provided. For me, it's all about Chris's plight and how it relates to the world we currently live in. You're right about the easy likability of Kaluuya. And you're especially right about Keener being the scariest thing in this movie, and by a long shot.

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    1. It's staggering that this is not only Jordan Peele's first feature-length film, but literally his first credit as a director of anything. If he's starting here, where the hell is he going to be in 10 years?

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  3. Very impressive debut. My only worry is could make black audiences less inclined to have interracial friends/ relationships, because depicts this as troublesome and Chris' black friend as 'the right thing'. Of course, it’s only a movie.
    I think horror is the go-to place for originality for me this year. My top 10 of 2017 currently has five horror films, anyway. I've not seen The Stepford Wives you mention, so maybe that's why Get Out felt new.

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    1. As someone who is a shade or two away from clear, I don't know how black audiences will react to this film. My guess, though, is that many will tell you that there is already a risk in interracial friendships/relationships, and that Chris's experiences in the first half of this film aren't that far away from real.

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