What would you say if I told you the best movie of the young year to date is a horror comedy made by the guy from Key and Peele? And by “best,” I mean the funniest, smartest, creepiest, and most culturally trenchant? All while playing like a combination throwback to/parody of thousands of cheesy don’t-go-in-the-basement thrillers that some of us never tell anyone we watch on Cinemax at 1 a.m.?
That’s a hefty assignment. Writer-director Jordan Peele — the short one of TV’s comic duo — has pulled it off without breaking a sweat. And he has found an audience: “Get Out” was the number one movie in the country on opening weekend, with a healthy $11,000 per-theater average at almost 2,800 cinemas. Critics loved it, with the film scoring a rare 99 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes. (The one hold-out, unsurprisingly, was the National Review’s Armond White, a career contrarian who, as always, is entitled to his opinion.)
At the very least, audiences for “Get Out” are having a good laugh and a good scream. It’s even possible that the majority appreciate the sweet, subversive message about race in America that lies in wait once you peel back the movie’s top layer. The movie’s as damning as it is enjoyable, as unshakable as it is absurd.
Maybe you’re not inclined to see “Get Out,” though, because it’s, you know, a horror movie. Pop culture junk. Nothing important or necessary for folks with sophisticated tastes. I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. For one thing, the movie’s actually not all that gory. OK, maybe a little toward the end, when the brains start hitting the fan.
But I’m also here to tell you that the movie does ask a certain audience to take a good look in the mirror. Because the scary monster at the end of the hallway is not some backwoods racist or alt-right nightmare or Trumpian boogabear. The scary monster is all those nice, educated, progressive folks out there in white America, the ones with best intentions, impeccable collections of black music, and complacent bourgeois disconnect. The scary monster is — dun-dun-DUNN — you and me.
Oh, right, not you, surely. You’re just fine. OK, then: me.
“Get Out” is the story of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young African-American photographer who in the opening scenes is heading out into the countryside to meet the parents of his white girlfriend of five months, Rose (Allison Williams of “Girls,” effortlessly nailing the required air of politically concerned privilege). Mom and Dad don’t know Chris is black, but not to worry, says Rose — they’re totally cool liberals who would have voted for Obama’s third term. They like black people. Maybe they think they’d like to be black people. Or just have one. It’s not quite clear.
Once at the parents’ rural compound, though, doubts start seeping in. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is friendly enough in a cringe-y “my man” sort of way, but Mom (beloved indie movie hipster fixture Catherine Keener) is a glowering psychiatrist whose specialty in hypnosis may be open to abuse. And what’s with Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), the spooky family groundskeeper and housemaid? They’re black but they act bizarrely white. Are they brainwashed? Are they zombies? (Gabriel, by the way, goes on my way-early short list for supporting actress.)
Peele is happily and consciously working off the “Rosemary’s Baby” template here, with both the innocent hero and the audience slowly becoming aware of vast, awful doings. “Get Out” plays with the clichés of horror movies in a way that gives you the giggles while still filling you with dread — it has its genre and eats it, too.
There’s the First Victim, a.k.a. the random character who gets dispatched in any horror movie’s opening scene. Here, it’s that great eccentric actor Lakeith Stanfield — Darius on FX’s “Atlanta” — as a black dude lost in suburbia; he turns up later as a docile guest at a garden party who suddenly bellows out the title warning to Chris. Excuse me, I mean The Warning.
There’s the Horrible Thing That Happens on the Way There: Chris and Rose hit a deer on the drive to her parents’ house, and the scene grows queasy and then comical and then queasy again with the arrival of a local cop. There’s the Unsettling Secondary Character, in this case Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who suggests a fusion of Renfield from “Dracula,” Christopher Walken as Annie Hall’s brother, and an online men’s rights activist.
There’s The Basement, which is off limits but into which everyone knows — even Chris — that he’s gonna have to go sooner or later. And there’s (spoiler alert, spoiler alert!) The Coven, which more than anything resembles a backyard cocktail fund-raiser for the local Democratic alderman. Maybe a little more demonic. Ruth Gordon and the rest of the Dakota crew from “Rosemary’s Baby” would fit right in.
“Get Out” walks an immensely tricky line with aplomb: It simultaneously parodies and reinvigorates horror movie clichés you’ve seen a zillion times. The more ridiculous the film gets, the more fun you’re having, in part due to Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s friend Rod, a TSA inspector who becomes the hero’s lifeline to the outer world before he pulls a Scatman Crothers and heads up to the country for a look-see. The whiter and tighter and weirder “Get Out” becomes, the more Rod becomes a voice of welcome comic sanity.
So it’s a playful movie but also a pointed one, and the deeper you scratch, the more Peele’s governing metaphor reveals itself. Which is that white well-meaning progressives often embrace signifiers of black culture like music or art or, uh, people as tokens of authenticity without bothering to investigate the nature or roots of that “authenticity” — where it comes from, what their part in it is, what they lose and who loses when they embrace it, what they think they’re lacking that they need it in the first place. And that all of that comes at a cost to the humanity, the individuality of the people they think they’re embracing. And by “they,” I mean me. Maybe you, if you want to think about it a bit. No pressure.
Can a person be the joke and get the joke at the same time? That’s what “Get Out” asks even as it’s entertaining the bejesus out of us. I’d hope and I’d argue that the answer is yes, that white moviegoers who are implicated in Jordan Peele’s sly hall of mirrors will be prompted by the film to humorous reflection and then onward to a greater awareness. Of what? At least the assumptions that govern our individual assessments of other people and races and classes, especially when we’re sure that all is perfectly fine with the way we look at our little world.
“Get Out” asks nothing less than that we go into our own basements and find out what’s waiting there in the dark. It just gives us a good laugh before pushing us down the stairs.