While gender has been a significantly represented factor in mainstream horror cinema for decades, race remains an underdeveloped theme reserved only for the most obvious of spoof comedies eager to lampoon a fright franchise or two. So the brilliance of Jordan Peele's race-related chiller Get Out cannot be overstated in terms of its uniqueness and importance.
This is the inverse of every token black victim character in every slasher ever made, a colossally clever examination of how racism exists on a sliding scale from carelessly inappropriate to downright murderous. As scathing as it is insightful, Get Out slickly straddles a satirical line between boldly exaggerated and eerily believable.
Chris (Daniel Kulayya) is about to meet his white girlfriend's parents and is clearly feeling nervous about how they'll react to their daughter dating a black man. But his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) assures Chris that her parents aren't racists and that he has nothing to worry about. On their drive out to Rose's parents' country cottage, they hit a deer, which would be a bad omen on its own, but instead leads into racial territory when the white cop who responds to their emergency phone call appears to overstep his bounds with Chris.
By the time they reach the house and Chris discovers parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) are actually wonderfully friendly and overly welcoming, the tensions are temporarily put at ease. Or at least, they would be if not for the ominous gaze of the family's black groundskeeper.
From there, Peele laces every moment with such an overwhelming amount of racial subtext that the movie becomes as much an exhaustive essay on its subject as it is an elaborately executed entertainment. It's also a mystery tale and Peele seems ever aware that he needs to stay ahead of his audience in both plot and thematic observances. There are only so many places the movie can go as it adds a black housekeeper to the roster, further strengthening the strangeness of the 'wealthy white people with black servants' situation that Chris has found himself in.
But Dean acknowledges the awkwardness of the issue before Chris is given any additional reasons to feel skeptical. This also works to put us at ease. If something was awry, surely the suspect wouldn't draw direct attention to the most damning clue, right? Peele knows that we know this is a horror movie, so he uses even that to his advantage, laying out loads of tantalizing breadcrumbs for us to follow while simultaneously throwing us off the main path.
Like Chris, we're sure something is going on, but can't quite put our collective finger on it. This aligns our perspective with the protagonist's and has us fishing for information in an ever-deepening pool of convolution. Things only get stranger when extended family shows up for an annual weekend celebration and everyone greets Chris with a smile and some curiously racial remarks about everything from his physique to their admiration of black athletes.
Peele borrows inspiration from The Stepford Wives, which is fitting since that story began as a slyly feminist novel. There's a tradition there of challenging societal norms through a satiric gaze, so just as Ira Levin exposed the identity-draining inanity of the subservient suburban housewife stereotype, Peele now skewers the preposterous peculiarity of white folk who don't know how to talk to black people without bringing up, say, Tiger Woods.
The comedy is potent, but also poignant, and the grim tone acts as a sobering reminder that while the seeming absurdity of the situations inspires much laughter, it’s probably not as far from reality as this white viewer would like to think. Chris handles the strangeness as well as he can, as well as anyone could, really, and Peele wisely grants him the opportunity to back out when things become too uncomfortable. This avoids the usual fright flick cliché where potential victims grow increasingly accepting of the danger until it’s too late.
All of this plays out very smartly, so Chris doesn’t have to turn dumb to facilitate the frights and we don’t have to roll our eyes at bad decisions manufactured to maintain the scares. Peele unravels the mysteries of the plot in sharply suspenseful fashion and doesn’t conclude his racial commentary once the nefarious truth is revealed. His determination to not switch gears when the movie enters its most traditionally scary segment in the third act is hugely commendable. Peele could be forgiven for easing off in favour of delivering solid jolts in the frightening finish, but instead he cuts even deeper into the heart of his primary theme.
Dissecting that theme feels like an overdue process for the genre. Even with the long-standing gender focus that puts women in the sole survivor role and makes them warriors instead of love interests, horror cinema has still been plagued with misogynistic ideology – virginal females are favoured, of course, while sexually active women are shamed to the point of being gorily murdered. But these tropes have been criticized and cleverly revised for years, with many different filmmakers exploring gender equality in mainstream horror either through parody or contemplative commentary.
It was a problem recognized and attended to, whereas the treatment of race has always been an ugly aspect of the slasher subgenre that remains mostly ignored. At best, the token black victim has been briefly spoofed, but never really attended to on a significant scale within the walls of the genre. This makes Get Out feel entirely new and vitally important, not only for its focus, but its rigour.
Peele isn’t content to play up a parody; instead, he goes for the genre’s jugular and turns every aspect of his movie, right down to minute details, into a matter of race. It’s profoundly ambitious and so carefully considered that it seems like Peele has achieved the impossible by exposing an entire genre's biases while adhering to its general rules. This is salacious satire that puts its succinct message in the title and its long form thesis in every frame, finding fact in fiction and clarity in colour.