"Get Out" Melds Serious And Silly To Diminishing Returns

Horror might seem an unlikely space for a career comedian to make his directorial debut, but race-based chiller “Get Out” sees Jordan Peele (“Keanu”) ably exploit the reflexive commonalities between fear and laughter – for a spell.

The movie peaks almost immediately, leading off with an unforgettable bit of musical juxtaposition. First, there’s 1939 British tune “Run Rabbit Run” by comedy duo Flanagan and Allen. The scene at hand reconfigures the song’s bouncy melody and crackly production: It’s the dead of the night. A young black man named Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) is lost in the suburbs, anxiously wandering its poorly lit sidewalks, looking for a sign of life. A white sports car creeps up behind him. Music bleeds from the vehicle. “Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run! Bang bang bang bang goes the farmer’s gun!”

Andre’s bad night has only just begun.

Then it’s on to psych-funk opus “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), neatly laid over the film’s opening titles. Here we’re introduced to our protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), black American and photographer, with the song’s refrain of “stay woke” functioning as a prophecy. A warning. As if Peele’s masterful prologue wasn’t clear enough, Glover’s falsettoed plea for social and political awareness finishes framing the movie. Racism is here. It’s everywhere. There is no escape.

Chris is prepping for a road trip; the time has come to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). The Armitages don’t know their daughter’s beau is black, but Rose confidently informs Chris that they’re proud Democrats. Still, the horror of small talk with potential in-laws – made twofold for Chris by the realities of racism in America – hangs heavy. His friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), the picture’s most reliable source of comic relief, begs him not to go. Chris and Rose hit the road anyway, a journey nearly cut short by a deer hit that seems to jostle something loose in Chris. Nevertheless, the couple arrives at their destination intact.

At first Rose’s parents come off like garden-variety self-congratulatory liberals. “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could,” squawks Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), waxing narcissistically about his own progressiveness. Meanwhile, Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) jaws about Chris’ smoking habit, insisting on helping him break it via hypnosis. Our protagonist does his best to brush off their nonsense, but before long it becomes obvious that something more sinister is afoot; precisely, when Dean refers to Chris and Rose’s romance as a “thang.” With but a few verbal cues, the film begins to bring its ingredients to a simmer.

Peele’s story is, after all, a stew of 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and 1973’s “The Wicker Man,” among other classics; a novel fusion of two underrepresented subgenres (interracial romance and cult horror). Dean, Missy, and Rose’s man-bunned brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) turn out to be even more of a nightmare than Chris could have imagined. Their politics barely conceal a nexus of ingrained whiteness, cultural appropriation, and black objectification. Chris is vexed, disturbed, and then physically threatened by the Armitages’ titanically creepy brand of racism, his paranoia accelerated by the family’s seemingly brainwashed black houseworkers.

When the conflict between our lead and his hosts eventually explodes into violence, the film clumsily shifts gears from exaggerated to absurd. On the back of character actor Stephen Root (“Office Space”) as a mysterious blind man, “Get Out” dives gracelessly into half-baked body horror that devalues the movie’s thematics.

In the Jordan Peele’s defense, his increasingly over-the-top screenplay is an unfortunate side effect of the same ingrained whiteness he’s excoriating. To approximate the alienation and prejudice that black Americans live with every day, Peele has little choice but to go with an amplified, blown-out vision of it. Luckily, Kaluuya – best known from “Black Mirror” episode Fifteen Million Merits – is so naturally endearing that he balances out the craziness around him. It’s because of Kaluuya that Peele’s commentary remains intelligible throughout, even as the movie leaps over logical chasms and loads up on hammy supporting performances.

Divorced from its racial politics, the picture is a modestly effective fright flick. But it’s those same politics that make it unique, meaning the final product is necessarily something of a hodgepodge. Despite a handful of unsettling scares, “Get Out” loses considerable steam as it moves toward its craven B-movie finale. The further it drifts from realism, the more it becomes an untenable mix of silly and serious.

To this end, Peele’s debut is a noteworthy, substantial one that leaves plenty of room for improvement.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 24, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Richard Herd
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references)