Jordan Peele delivers what feels like seven films at once in his first movie as director, “Get Out”, which is so beguiling, strange, and yet bewitching, that any reaction I had to it from scene to scene was tempered by the fact that I was never, quite, sure how I was meant to be reading the film as a whole. It has an almost feverish quality, like you’re seeing a bunch of images that have been percolating for a long time spilling out uncontrollably in front of you. It lurches from tone to tone, style to style, and yet never feels out of control or a mess.
The conceit is horror, played from a racial angle. After a Halloween-aping prologue in which a young black man is abducted in the dead of night in a sleepy suburb, we meet Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) a young professional couple who are visiting her parents for a weekend in their big estate in the country. He is worried when he’s told that her parents don’t even know he’s black, but she reassures him- “my dad would have voted Obama for a third term, if he could” (this is one of the first big laughs of the film).
Without the prologue, this would set the stage well for some kind of comedy of errors, a Meet The Fockers (White Liberal Edition), and for a short time the film plays up to this, as cornball dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) shows Chris around their ludicrously nice home, spewing nonsense platitudes about sampling “other cultures” as if they’re a kind of dish, and giving an uncomfortable sermon about Jesse Owens achievements in the 1936 Olympics, and what that must have felt like to Hitler.
Yet, things are conspicuously awry, and Chris can’t help but notice it. The two black workers who help out around the estate are off in a way that’s impossible to describe, but apparent to all. A big house get-together goes further down the route of this social inferno, as a series of old white women crow and bray around Chris, feeling his muscles, asking him if it’s better, talking about other black people they know. It’s deeply uncomfortable, not just because of the excruciating violation of social politeness, but because Peele shoots it as some kind of paranoid 70’s British folk horror (think The Wicker Man, or The Blood on Satan’s Claw). Everything is five degrees askew.
This feeling of offness, amplified in the moments of genuine unease, is apparent throughout the whole film, and it’s very effective. I think it’s predominantly due to the way the movie is filmed, by cinematographer Toby Oliver. The shot placement and mis en scene is all over the place, starting out as some kind of formal, mannered exercise in object placement and tableau, before going completely off-rails and playing all kinds of visual havoc, placing cameras low to the ground and looking up, thrusting them uncomfortably close to character’s faces, handing out subtle zooms and forward dollies that exacerbate a constant sense that something is happening, and neither we nor Chris can get an idea of what.
The whole film, in fact, feels a little bit like a jump-scare waiting to happen. This sounds cheap and lazy, but it isn’t. There are moments where we do jump (Chris’s solitary night-time walk through the estate is a near masterclass in discomfort), but Peele’s ceaseless exploration of the frame means that, quite often, elements of the scene that were visible become blocked out, leaving us unsure what’s behind, or around, the character in focus. We, as viewers, are plunged headfirst into the strangeness along with Chris.
In addition to this, Peele is liberal with his use of metaphors; the mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), is a psychiatrist, and in one scene that is more subtext than text she hypnotises Chris to get him to quit smoking. The framing of the scene is itself a tell, as she sits legs crossed, subtly questioning him while he sits, his arms along the arms of his chair, like someone being interrogated. She lulls him into a trance by chinking her silver spoon (geddit?) along her porcelain cup, he sinks back into his chair, and then all of a sudden he’s disassociated, floating in a literal black void, looking at a small screen that is supposed to represent his vision, and his lack of contact with it. This scene was probably my favourite in the film, and you can tell Peele was desperate to get it on screen just-so (mainly because it’s so at odds, visually, with everything else that happens). The scene examines race relations, privilege, and black alienation in an attuned, attentive way, and it effectively does it without words.
And there’s so much more- Caleb Landry Jones turns up as Rose’s odious brother, lingering in backgrounds throughout the film, resisting the urge to lick the scenery. Lil Rel Howery plays Chris’ best friend Rod, a boisterous puppy of a comic foil who absolutely belongs in a different film (and yet, fits). The score is Herrmann-esque, jolting slabs of harsh strings, and then curiously ambient. It’s such a mess, and yet not.
Any other film doing this much would fall apart at the seams, yet Peele somehow brings it all together, and the result big, goofy patchwork quilt that’s exceedingly fun to wrap yourself up in.