Get Out was released in UK cinemas last week to great critical acclaim, with much of the focus being on the power and timeliness of its potent political messages. Yet, it is the subversion of its genre trappings and the lack of answers it provides to the audience that transcends the film beyond didactic propaganda.
To the consternation of cinema’s high-brow purists, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg were very good friends. In 1999, when Kubrick suddenly passed away from a cardiac arrest shortly before the release of his final directorial feature Eyes Wide Shut, it was Spielberg that was given the task of completing Kubrick’s great unfinished project, AI: Artificial Intelligence. It may seem a surprise to the millennial fanboys of American cinema’s greatest auteur, but Spielberg, with all his eighties blockbuster baggage, was Kubrick’s choice and had first been personally handed the project in 1995, and had refused it initially before making it after his great friend’s death. Kubrick not only admired Spielberg as a man, but also as a filmmaker.
The only caveat in Kubrick and Spielberg’s relationship, first fostered in the seventies as Spielberg was working in the UK, was the release of Schindler’s List. Spielberg’s sombre opus was a bleak reflection on the evils of the Holocaust, and yet also a stirring tribute to his Jewish heritage and the triumph of great men in horrific adversity. Kubrick hated it. Not only because Spielberg had gazumped Kubrick in making a moving about the Holocaust at the same time Kubrick was looking to adapt the Aryan Papers for the screen, but also because to Kubrick, Schindler’s List was a bad movie. Kubrick is believed to have said that “Schindler’s List is about victory, yet The Holocaust was about massive failure.” Spielberg, in other words, had taken a horrific example of human suffering and of a lack of humanity to tell a story about Oscar Schindler, a man with humanity acting heroically, rather than focusing the narrative on the more representative story of millions of Jews dying in concentration camps.
This brings us to the true brilliance of Get Out. The movie makes no effort to console us, or to comfort us, or to portray its ideas in a way that are immediately comprehensible. It isn’t a schlocky, grindhouse B-movie as its title possibly suggests, which would allow the audience to dismiss it so easily as a thriller. There are no caricatured rednecks to be found here, or white monsters that can be easily deconstructed. Nor is it a film designated only for the politically interested, with narrative points that conform to a set anti-Trump worldview. Instead it’s a masterful example of the possibilities of horror. The incredibly talented Jordan Peele in his directorial debut may have already made the best work of his career.
Get Out tells the tale of Chris Washington, an African-American, played to empathetic perfection by British actor Daniel Kayuula, visiting the white parents of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage for the first time. On the way there, his girlfriend’s car is stopped by the police for a minor issue with the lights, only for the tension to immediately increase when the white cop asks for Chris’ I.D, despite the fact his girlfriend is driving the car. Soon after, he eventually meets Rose’s parents: upstate, white, upper-crust liberals living on a beautiful manor set on a sprawling plot of land. Her father is a neurosurgeon while her mother is a psychiatrist, and both are played within the tradition of sinister hammer-horror archetypes, being charismatic, hyper-intelligent, unsettling and completely haunting from the first time they appear on screen. Unfortunately for Chris, the parents have arranged a full-scale family reunion that weekend. It is from here, that the curious fetishizing of Chris’ skin colour is toxically blended with more outward and increasingly disturbing racism.
The plot could easily be dismissed in some quarters as a millennial fable of white guilt and privilege, a cautionary tale meant for some liberal echo chamber, and yet what makes it work is its failure to conform to this through its choice of aesthetics and the cinematic choices the movie makes. First of all, the first act of the film is far too humorous to be dismissed. The movie has intentionally made us laugh, uncomfortably, several times within the opening minutes. At one point, Rose (played counter-intuitively by Girls actress Alison Williams) consoles Chris after stating that she hasn’t mentioned to her parents that he is black, by saying that they love black people and would have “voted for Obama a third time” if they could. It’s a painful but authentic portrayal of tone-death “anti-racist” statements that white people make without thinking.
Meanwhile, the rapport between Chris and a friend back home who comes back into the action in the third act is genuinely tightly written and has its share of jokes. There are also knowing nods and references to other films in horror’s great cinematic canon which at the very least raise a knowing smile from the more genre-obsessed film viewer. Powerfully put alongside this is the film’s establishment of scares and suspense, which highlight the humour and put it in a uncomfortable context. A mysterious black man is abducted within the first few frames of the feature, a legitimately scary sequence, while the dispute with the police creates additional tension. Furthermore, the whole context of meeting the hitherto unrevealed parents whose racial views are unknown has already built a nasty sense of expectation. Thus, the typical horror establishing effects have been combined with the awkward humour of the script, a rare accomplishment in a movie of making a person horrified while laughing.
Without spoiling the rest of the movie, the film continues to buck the trend. The suspense of the first few minutes of the movie is replaced by slow-burning and unsettling horror, a contradiction to more recent the traditions of Blumhouse, the horror studio that made it, which tends to make more conventionally scary fare these days. Meanwhile the established loyalties of the characters in the first act are shocking reverse, pulling the narrative rug from under our feet, and genre tropes like hypnotism, mind control, multiple personalities and extended chase sequences are dissected, explored and manipulated to potent effect to the point that the film has a real intellectual heft while not being an intrinsically intellectual movie. There is also a welcome lack of jump-scares and “he’s behind you” moments, which combined with the restrained amounts of blood, force the film to rely on its characters and their motivations to make the film horrific, which it aptly is.
It is doubtful that any film this year will eviscerate white notions of no racism existing in America with ballsy critiques of white commodification of black culture and of black men in particular, as strongly as this film does, and it isn’t a coincidence this came about through entrenching the film in the genre itself rather than overtly reaching for political points as numerous social think-pieces and left-wing film reviews have suggested it has done. The fact it explores these issues so effectively in a film with a taut 103-minute running time, may well be because it has a 103 minute run time and uses the utility of horror to make its points, which are always intrinsic to the story rather than the other way round.Thus it heightens its message through its reliance and reversals of the hallmarks of the genre, while managing the keep the messages compatible with the aesthetics, in particular the impeccable acting of the cast and the arresting cinematography that belies its $4.5m budget.
That said, the best aspect of the film is that there are plenty of questions raised and so few answers. A week after first watching the movie, I still have no idea if the behaviour of “the help” suggests criticisms that might be less palatable to university liberals. To me it doesn’t appear to be exclusively critical of white people, and how one responds to that on a film with so many references to racial paranoia is difficult to say. It also still isn’t clear to me whether I like certain scenes in the film, or if some things are miss-steps or intentionally done to keep me off guard. At other times it dances so close to tropes when dissecting them that like other recent horror films such as It Follows, The Babadook and The Green Room, it enjoys them as much as it critiques them. Then there is the ending, which offers no real answers, and shifts what was previously seen as funny in the film to be retrospectively distasteful and nihilistic.
What the film is therefore, is a proper movie. It isn’t a political mouthpiece, it is a movie with cinematic accomplishments and a real edge. Get out utilises aesthetics and horrors characteristics to underline its points but never at the cost of a movie that constantly asks questions. It has rough spots, it has troubling sequences and it makes a viewer frequently uncomfortable and plays with their emotional palette in a way rarely accomplished. It pops every social bubble you float in.
It is a film, therefore, that despite its problems, that needs to be seen. Not for its politics, but because of how it expresses it politics.
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Words by Nick Earl