US (2017) Dir. Jordan Peele
America is a funny place. It calls itself the “Land of the Free” yet racial discrimination is still a huge problem over there. Perhaps ironically, or maybe just a sign of the times, it befalls to a black director to satirise this through the medium of film rather than vent about it.
Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young black photographer in a relationship with middle classed white girl Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and it is time to meet her parents. Rose reassures Chris that her parents won’t have a problem with him being black and indeed, when they arrive at their secluded country estate, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) couldn’t be more welcoming.
Only Rose’s stoner brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) acts a little hostile but they put that down to his boozing. Chris is a little concerned about the family having two black servants, maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) but they assure him they are fine. During an annual party held at the estate Chris has an unusual encounter with another black man Logan King (LaKeith Stanfield) that sets off a disturbing chain of events.
Jordan Peele is an actor and writer making his directorial debut and he couldn’t have picked a bolder subject to discuss at a time when his country is in a peculiar state of disarray due to the election of Donald Trump as president. With Trump’s anti-Muslim stance and “America First”, a lot of ignorant bigots have seen this as a sanction to decry and victimise ethnic minorities, re-opening old wounds the Black Civil Rights Movement sought to close all those years ago.
With Get Out, the message about racist attitudes and the white supremacy mindset is made abundantly clear yet Peele flips it on its head a little, poking fun at the so-called liberals who say all the right things to black people, yet add to the problem in their own way. To reassure Chris, Dean tells him he voted for Obama; later on a golf loving party guest tells Chris that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer of all time.
Naturally there is louche amusement to be found here and Chris takes it in his stride with a wry but uncomfortable smile as he backs away in search of his own sanity. Yet Logan King, talks to Chris as if he was from the 1950’s, not understanding common black parlance like “brother” or recognising a fist bump. The fact Logan is with a white woman thirty year his senior and apparently servile to her is another concern.
If you have seen this film advertised as a horror then some patience is required because it is not until the final act that the true horror makes its presence known with a killer twist. I would also advise not watching the trailer before viewing this film as it gives away far too much of the preliminary unease and tension ahead of time, leaving little to experience firsthand.
That said, Peele does a good job of setting up these little moments designed to spook us out, as well as leaving little motifs dotted that will later become integral ingredients of the big reveal, again sadly spoiled in the trailer. What is underplayed in the trailer is the comic relief provided by Chris’ airport security friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), representing the wisecracking urban homie, complete with the “MF’s” and “them white folk” rhetoric.
Back at the Armitage estate and it is revealed that Dean is a neurosurgeon and Missy is a psychiatrist, whose hypnotherapy helped cure Dean’s smoking and she offers to help Chris kick his. On his sleepless first night at the house, Missy catches Chris sneaking out for a crafty fag and sits him down in her “office, where she surreptitiously puts him under her spell.
It’s a traumatic experience for Chris but at least he won’t smoke anymore, but now he is wondering if there is something more to it. Peele uses an original and innovative method to visualise the space Chris is pulled into whilst under hypnosis, bringing the first genuine touch of surreal discord to the proceedings. It also begs the question why this hasn’t been thought of before, being such a beguiling yet simple way to manifest this sensation.
Looking for prior influences on this film, the obvious one is The Stepford Wives, courtesy of Georgia and Walter’s unnerving perma-smile joy at working for the Armitage family that fails to convince Chris. Peele makes a point of having Dean apologise to Chris for perpetuating such a cliché by having black employees but insists he couldn’t let them go after they had cared for his parents, so it’s all good.
Once the truth comes out, all the minor innocuous details from before eventually reveal themselves as vital clues of the terrifying bigger picture that only Chris seems to notice, a testament to his sense of photographic awareness and curiosity. Like many thriller directors before him Peele is challenging the audience to show similar vigilance and observational skills, but is happy to also mess with our perceptions of what we think we saw.
Reportedly Peele shoot a number of alternate endings, both positive and negative, but it was the current climate of white police attacks on black people in the US that dictated the ending we got was for the best. It comes after a rather by-the-numbers horror film denouement and still has room for one more swerve, but certainly feels like a compromise given the established propensity for misdirection and the topic at hand.
With a strong cast (Catherine Keener was the only name I recognised) and a confident presentation rife with quietly distressing atmospherics, Peele shows tremendous promise with Get Out as a director. A heady mix of provocative social commentary and slow building dread, this is also the only time you will likely hear a Flanagan and Allen song in a Hollywood film. How scary is that?