Satire is hard, and ‘Get Out’ gets it right.
Danger: Spoilers lie within!
Get Out, Jordan Peele’s feature film debut as a writer and director, was the best picture of 2017. I say this without having seen every picture in 2017, so while this technically should disqualify my opinion, let’s take a look at why I’m right. Every critic does it anyway.
First, what does “best” mean? “Best” is not just a subjective judgment of the quality of the film. Here, we talk about not only how well a film fulfilled the tenets of “great cinema,” like compelling visuals and sound design that serve a well-told and well-acted story, but the overall impact of the film and its eventual legacy. Get Out was an astonishing debut for writer-director Jordan Peele by any metric. The $5 million, low-budget theatrical release brought $254 million into the box office; it’s a horror film that transcended its genre as a timely, ruthless satire; and it brought about ecstatic reviews.
It’s rare such a “message” film becomes a popular smash, but Get Out, in folding its message into horror tropes inspired by films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, honors and carries on the tradition of satiric horror. By using genre in such a sophisticated way to make a social statement that, sadly, will likely be timely for years to come, Get Out will continue to stand the test of time and be remembered as a great film long after many of this year’s other critically-acclaimed releases are long forgotten.
The premise of the film is extraordinarily simple: Chris, a young Black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya), travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), to meet her parents for the first time for a weekend in the woods. Peele takes this simple premise, which could have been made into an awkward “fish out of water” comedy, and turns it into a sublimely horrifying look not only at the subjugation and objectification of Black people, but white liberal America’s ignorance of their own complicity in that subjugation and objectification.
The opening sequence, unconnected to Chris’s story, immediately creates a sense of danger and cinematic savvy as a young Black man walks down the sidewalk of a suburb at night in an expertly executed tracking shot as the young man sees a car (white, of course, and kept out of focus) following him. As he changes direction and the camera follows him, the car emerges in the frame only in the background to show that the car has stopped and the driver’s door is now open. He is, of course, immediately attacked in the kind of “jump scare” with which many horror fans are intimately familiar. Rarely has an opening tracking shot — here, just over three minutes long — immediately heralded the arrival of a new director as a major talent. It is a Touch of Evil–worthy moment.
There are so many deft touches from Peele, who truly understands genuine filmmaking so much more than many of his sketch comedy peers over the decades. Even the first time we meet Chris and Rose, it foreshadows their roles in the conspiracy ahead, as Peele cuts between a shirtless, still-wet-from-the-shower Chris shaving in his bathroom as sex object, and a close-up of Rose carefully shopping for donuts. We don’t know at the time that Rose has carefully chosen Chris as a body for an old white man to possess, but upon a second viewing, these kinds of visual hints are everywhere, showing Peele as a master of visual filmmaking.
From then, we get set up for the awkward “meet the parents” scenario ahead, and for a while it looks like this will be just a squirm-inducing, awkward comedy about a clash of cultures. Rose mentions her dad’s likely reaction to Chris being Black — “My dad would’ve voted for Obama a third time if he could’ve” — as apt proof that he’s not racist. And Bradley Whitford’s Dean does seem overtly accommodating, if awkward, in a Michael Scott–esque way, ineptly attempting to ingratiate Chris by asking of the new couple, “How long has this thang been going on?”
For those who have seen the film, you know that Chris’s painful interactions with the placidly satisfied Black servants leads to his discovery that the family, including Rose, is in on the seductions and kidnappings of Black men whose bodies are harvested for the brains of aging white people. It is pointed, vicious satire, and what works especially is that the family portray themselves as friends and tolerant, kind liberals rather than the overt racists many comedy writers choose to mock. Here, Peele is mocking “us.” The alleged allies. Perhaps that racism lies under the surface anyway.
The film is not only successful cinematically; the screenplay is a brilliant piece of work. The revelation that Chris’s nervous habit of scratching the arms of chairs in which he’s sitting leads to his salvation, when he sticks cotton in his ears so he cannot hear the directions meant to brainwash him, is a cheer-inducing moment, especially when one realizes he’s a Black man who’s literally been saved by “picking cotton.”
Jordan Peele didn’t come from nowhere. A longtime sketch comedy veteran, Peele had already skyrocketed in recent years with his costarring role alongside Keegan Michael Key in Comedy Central’s Key and Peele. What separates Peele from fellow sketch comedy veterans like Harold Ramis and Adam McKay, among others, is that his debut film betrays none of that background. Ramis’s and McKay’s directorial debuts, Caddyshack and Anchorman respectively, were outstanding comedies but were essentially humorous vignettes strung together by a very thin plot.
Peele, however, has immediately constructed an efficient, deeply brilliant and disturbing satire that is a fully complete one-hour-and-45-minute vision. Few who had seen Key and Peele would have expected this direction.
Great movie satires are few and far between, and when they arise, it is a moment for celebration. Key and Peele was rightfully praised as a beacon of intelligent satire, and if there’s any antecedent to Get Out in that show, it’s the parody of The Walking Dead, in which Key and Peele flee from zombies following the glorious killing of no less than Kevin Sorbo himself, only to realize the zombies don’t want anything to do with the two of them even as they tear into the white people around them. “These are some racist motherf—ing zombies!” Key exclaims.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Jordan Peele is a great talent, but Get Out was the most pleasant and brilliant surprise of the year, a rare horror film that transcends its genre and will stand alongside its inspirations as one of the great satires of all time. No film in 2017 made such an impact on so many levels.