“Get Out”: The Call is Coming From Inside the House

This review got a little out of hand (I got too excited about this movie, basically). For readability I’ve split it into three parts:

  1. A brief, totally spoiler-free review
  2. A longer discussion of the first two-thirds of the movie; I won’t spoil the reveal or the final act, but will discuss plot points prior to that
  3. A mini-essay about the final act that you shouldn’t read until you’ve seen the movie, unless you don’t care about spoilers

Disclaimer: I’m a white woman, and whether a white person likes this movie or not is pretty clearly irrelevant. I couldn’t resist writing about it because I found it not just great, but fascinating and important, but we definitely want to hear from writers of color on this movie: if you have a take on “Get Out,” please pitch us at [email protected]

  1. If all you need is a review, here you go: “Get Out” is brilliant, a genuinely terrifying horror movie with a daringly original premise that also made me laugh the hardest I’ve laughed at the movies in a long time. Jordan Peele gleefully mixes B-movie thrills and punchlines with subtle, effective suspense-building and a deeply uncomfortable and necessary message about race in America. Go see it.

2. If you have a little more time: here’s why I think “Get Out” is not just a great horror movie, but a significant film that deserves study. The premise—a NYC couple, Rose and Chris, takes a weekend trip upstate so Chris, who’s Black, can meet his white girlfriend’s family—sets us up for a movie about place, about white people’s reluctance to let people of color into their spaces, with the family space as the most intimate of a series of nested spaces that also includes neighborhood and home. (The pre-credits sequence plays off this “you don’t fit the profile of the neighborhood” idea—more on that in a second.) This premise suggests a movie whose major question is: Is this white woman’s liberal, “not-racist” family—“My dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have, and I’m only saying that because it’s gonna come up,” Rose warns Chris, and sure enough, her dad makes that claim verbatim—really okay with her dating a Black guy? But if you’ve seen the trailer, you already know that Jordan Peele takes that dramatic premise and spins it sideways into horror. That decision pays off spectacularly. As a horror film, “Get Out” can be about race in a daring, explicit way seldom seen onscreen.

In the US, mainstream movies addressing the legacy of slavery generally (though this is starting to change) fall into one of two categories: contemporary prestige drama, too often made by and centering white people, and historical tragedy/epic. “Get Out” reminds us that the historical fact of slavery has much more of horror in it than either drama or tragedy. No matter how unflinchingly a slavery epic shows us violence and violation, the audience is distanced by history. “Get Out” brings the trauma of slavery into the present to show how it is still with us, immediate and visceral.

“Get Out” might have been the most cathartic experience I’ve ever had in the movie theater. We shouted warnings, laughed, screamed, burst into applause, and I don’t think it was just because I saw it with a bunch of rowdy college students. The violence in the film is concentrated into a series of firework-like bursts over the last half hour, and each bloody set piece met with a roar of approval. It didn’t feel bloodthirsty; it felt purgative and purifying.

But let’s back up before I give too much away, because the pre-credits sequence displays, in miniature, a lot of what makes this movie special. It’s a young Black man, walking a suburban street at night. On the phone, he expresses unease at being in this “creepy, confusing suburb,” where he sticks out like “a sore thumb.” A white car passes by, slowly; then we hear it reverse and it comes back into frame, driving slowly alongside the man.

One incongruous fact about this terrifying movie: it’s also hilarious. And it’s hilarious for one of the main reasons Key & Peele is hilarious: for its expert knowledge of, and thus ability to exaggerate and subvert, our expectations of film and TV genres. Here, the young man sees the car stalking him and, rather than ignoring it or walking slightly faster, as we expect from a “suspense” sequence, he immediately reverses direction and crosses the street to take another route, saying “Oh, hell no,” which got the first laugh of the night.

Many of the best scares in the movie revolve around framing, starting with this one. The camera stays close to the man as he begins to cross the street, so there’s already suspense: the car is lurking just out of frame, and we’re primed for violence by our awareness of what happens in real life when people decide that a Black man or boy walking at night is inherently suspicious. When the scare comes, though, it’s stranger: the man at last looks up, and sees the car parked in the middle of the street with its front door open and lights on. Before we can piece it together, someone grabs him from behind, gets him into a headlock, then drags his unconscious body to the car and shoves him in the trunk, all in a single shot. It would be a stunning little piece of suspense filmmaking even if it didn’t pay off later, which it does (though I won’t say how).

Then the movie proper starts: after the introduction of our main characters and a first pair of seemingly minor scares on the drive to Rose’s family home—they hit a deer; a cop wants Chris’s but not Rose’s ID even though she was driving—we arrive at the Armitage house, grand and vaguely colonial. The casting here is inspired: the Armitages are Allison Williams (Rose), best known for Girls, Bradley Whitford (Dean), best known for The West Wing, and Catherine Keener (Missy), who was in Synecdoche, New York and Please Give. They are masters, in other words, at portraying a particular kind of privileged, socially conscious whiteness. Caleb Landry Jones as Rose’s louche, physically imposing brother gets less screen time but makes it count, turning even strumming a ukulele into a threatening gesture.

The first two-thirds of the movie expertly build two kinds of tension at once, which Peele has set up with those two very different “driving scares.” There’s the tension we expect from the premise, which builds from the encounter with the racist cop: the Armitages are clumsy, at best, about relating to Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), and when a dozen other relatives suddenly descend on the house in a funereal convoy of black SUVs, the conversations the couple is drawn into get more and more explicitly racist. One relative references Tiger Woods apropos of nothing; another explains that “Black is fashionable”; a woman feels Chris’s bicep and archly asks Rose, “Is it true? Is it better?”

Then there’s the horror-movie tension, building from the pre-credits sequence and the jump scare of hitting the deer. This thread quickly leaves the realm of realism, when a late-night session with psychiatrist Missy ends with Chris hypnotized and staring up at her from deep within his own mind—”the sunken place,” Missy calls it. This tension is heightened by the eerie presence of the family’s Black servants, Walter the groundskeeper (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina the housekeeper (Betty Gabriel), who speak in stilted, formal sentences and spend a lot of time staring blankly. Georgina is particularly unsettling in a scene where she smilingly assures Chris that the Armitages treat her and Walter “like family,” as a single tear slips down her face. But there’s nothing truly unexplainable, not for a long time.

This is where Rod (stand-up comic Lil Rel Howery) comes in, Chris’s TSA agent friend that he calls to air his feelings of unease. Peele brilliantly consolidates stock supporting roles from two different genres, making Rod simultaneously the horror genre’s Cassandra character (he validates Chris’s misgivings and tells him to get out, albeit not in so many words) and the rom-com genre’s overly skeptical friend (he suggests that Missy the hypno-psychiatrist is “putting everybody in a trance and then fucking the shit out of them” and wishes Chris had followed his advice—”Like what?” “Like don’t go to a white girl parents’ house”). He is simultaneously the voice of reason and the comic relief. The result of this expert balancing act between multiple genres—prestige drama, horror, romantic comedy—is a persistent feeling of unease.

And that’s all before the second-act crisis and the third-act reveal, which I’ll discuss below.

***SPOILERS***

3. In a devastating twist, Rod’s outlandish speculation is proven to be unsettlingly accurate: the family is, quite literally, “abducting Black people, brainwashing [well, hypnotizing and lobotomizing] them, and making them work for them as sex slaves and shit.” (The “sex slave” line gets a huge laugh when Rod shouts it after seeing a photo of the only other Black man at the family reunion, Andre, who’s accompanying a white woman twice his age, but it becomes chilling when we realize that that is what he is: with her husband’s brain in Andre’s body, this woman is having sex with that body without Andre’s consent.)

The reveal that Chris will lose all autonomy, that his every movement and word will be controlled by the white man whose brain will inhabit his skull, is why I don’t think it’s fully accurate to say, as I’ve seen lots of reviews say, that this is a movie about unconscious liberal racism. I think it’s about what liberal racism masks, which is something far more monstrous. I think “Get Out” is an allegory: a literalization of the violation and colonization of Black bodies on which white supremacy—and American society—is founded.

In order to escape the fate of being held captive in his own body, Chris must fight his way out of the house. Ingeniously, he uses the trappings of WASP respectability around him as weapons, wielding, among other things, a bocce ball and a mounted deer head to fight his way through the Armitages, one by one, at last setting the house on fire as he escapes.

Of course, that’s not the end: there’s more climactic violence on the road, and a final, seemingly tragic twist with the arrival of a police car. Like the pre-credits sequence, this finale immediately resonates with our cultural moment, as well as referencing the ending of the original “Night of the Living Dead,” where the Black hero survives the most extreme peril the horror genre can throw at him, only to be murdered by garden-variety racist cops.

But—I did mention this is the spoiler part—Chris isn’t murdered. When Rod steps out of the cop car, my theater erupted into cheers. For all the horrors in the film, it ends on a triumphant note: the enslavers are dead, their house is burning, and our hero is alive. Rod even gets what might be the most hilarious “I told you so” moment in all of cinema. Except. The violation we now know the real Walter, Georgina, and Andre have suffered remains horrifying.

Lots of movies use the idea of one being’s mind controlling another being’s body, but it’s palpably different here. The controllers aren’t aliens or malevolent AI or sorcerers trying to take over the world: they’re just white people greedy for more life and willing to sacrifice any number of Black people to get it. That’s why I don’t think this is a movie about unconscious, ingrained bias, even metaphorically; I think it’s about the casual brutality and dehumanization of white supremacy. This is why the most chilling dialogue in the film comes when “Walter” and “Georgina” insist on their autonomy—”I don’t answer to anybody but myself,” Walter says; “I don’t do anything I don’t want to do,” Georgina smiles. This is why the moment that haunts me is when Georgina, the real Georgina, the remnant of brain buried deep in her skull, manages to weep a single tear, while the woman controlling her mouth says the Armitages are like family: because I realize now that this tear is the only statement we have seen from her in the entire movie, the only testimony she can give.

A final reflection on the intersection of race and gender in this film: by cinematic convention, female villains either die accidentally, by their own hand, or by the hand of a female hero. We don’t like watching a man we’re rooting for kill a woman. But Missy and Rose must clearly die, and the only person who can do it (or so we think) is Chris. He dispatches Missy in a hand-to-hand fight, as fair as such a fight can be when she doesn’t have her secret hypnosis weapon (a teacup and teaspoon—no detail fails to pull its weight). Chris initially avoids killing Rose, leaving her in the house as he flees, but when she pursues him he is forced to confront her as well. Or rather, Walter is: Chris frees him from his hypnosis and he shoots her in the gut, before shooting himself. It reminded me of the moment in “Django Unchained” where Django coolly shoots Lara Lee Candie. I’ve read that some audiences objected to this moment, but for me, in all three of these scenes, the initial jolt of discomfort at watching a man kill a woman was quickly overridden by the reasoning that we abhor this sight because men are structurally (and almost always physically) more powerful than women. That structural power dynamic is reversed when it comes to slavery, so women who participate in slavery—which I’m arguing is the subject of “Get Out” just as much as “Django Unchained”—exempt themselves from the taboo. It’s fitting, and satisfying, that Chris should kill the woman who tried to hypnotize him into oblivion, that Rose should be shot by the man that she and her family have victimized for years.

But this is a horror movie, and Rose is the final villain, so she can’t possibly go down that easy. Chris must wrestle a gut-shot Rose to the ground, where he gets his hands around her throat, but can’t bring himself to strangle her. And—in the second most chilling moment of the film, to me—Rose’s bloodless lips curl into a smile. She knows she is safe, because some part of Chris still loves her. But she is also safe structurally, because she inhabits the perpetual and unassailable victimhood of white womanhood. Our blood runs cold when the police car drives up, because we see what he will see: a Black man covered in blood, crouched over a white woman on the ground, strangling her. Black men have been killed for much, much less, when it comes to white women—for nothing, in fact. In this moment, with this tableau, we expect instant death. And Rose knows that: she calls, weakly, “Help.” She knows the cop is there to help her. The fact that she is wrong, that in fact she bleeds out on the blacktop as Chris and Rod drive away, is a glorious and welcome reprieve from any number of things happening in the real world, though a temporary one.

“Get Out” is not a subtle movie. It is a horror movie that embraces the extravagances of its genre (as well as several others): remember, its villains include an evil hypnotist who stirs a cup of tea to trap people in their own bodies and an evil neurosurgeon who performs at-home brain transplants. Peele isn’t going for subtle; he’s going for allegory, for visual metaphor, a radically vivid and visceral depiction of the racial trauma threaded through American society. And he succeeds wildly. The fact that he succeeds within the parameters of a film genre that, like most, has a racial history ranging from checkered to shameful makes it all the sweeter. By the end of the movie, we understand the title command differently. It’s not just the horror-movie warning, “Get out of the house.” It’s a call to escape the racist society that makes the atrocities we’ve seen possible. It’s a call to get out of the master’s house. And that means burning it down.

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