Among the United States’ shortcomings, few are as pernicious as its racial divide, forged in a history of slavery, civil war and systemic racism, and fueled by an ongoing animosity over a lack of consensus over how different Americas existing for different sets of Americans. the U.S., people talk about race all the time, but they don’t talk to each other about it, and that drives a great deal of our cultural energy, especially comedy, because we are a people who laugh when we must not cry. And it drives our angst as well, among those of us who know we could be victimized for something we cannot control, and among those of us who know that the degree of their complicity depends on their degree of comfort with the way things are right now. This is creative territory that is both fertile and fraught with peril, but it is ground that comedian and first-time director Jordan Peele knows intimately. The proof is Get Out, his instant masterpiece about racial anxiety, cultural appropriation, and perhaps the greatest horror of all: meeting the parents.
The story concerns Chris Washington, a black photographer who travels upstate with his girlfriend Rose Armitage to meet her family. Chris is a little worried that Rose’s white family might not take kindly to their daughter dating a black man, but Rose assures him it’ll all be okay. She defends him during a police profiling stop along the way, and once at the family compound, Rose’s parents are embarrassingly welcoming to Chris, in a virtual ticker-tape parade of virtue signaling. But Chris can’t help but notice that the black servants who seem not entirely right in the head, and a huge family gathering that Rose somehow failed to mention that involves a lot of rich old white folks even more insultingly gracious than Rose’s parents. One of them even has a young black paramour on her arm, and when Chris takes the guy’s picture, the fellow seems to snap out of a fugue state and screams for Chris to flee. Chris knows something is wrong, and his clandestine phone calls to Rod, his TSA agent-friend back home, confirm Chris’ worst fears. He needs to get the hell out of that place, and he needs to do it right now. The question is…can he?
Get Out is a rare blend of social commentary, psychological horror, and curveball comedy that comes together perfectly in a movie that establishes a sense of dread fueled by our own pre-existing racial anxieties. It turns things up to high tension, and then defuses them routinely with the kind of outstanding comic timing and precision that made Peele’s show Key & Peele required viewing for comedy aficionados. Rod’s ongoing efforts to find out what is happening with his missing friend is an immensely enjoyable nod to audience participation, as Rod becomes a one-man chorus for everybody who ever lectured the characters in a horror movie from a cinema chair. His reactions, and the reactions of the people whom he tries to enlist for help, is the stuff of dark comedy genius, in part because we know what the stakes are. Meanwhile, we watch with growing unease as Chris’s predicament worsens. Throughout much of the movie, we keep asking ourselves, is his girlfriend part of the situation here, or is she as much in the dark as Chris is? Eventually, we find out, but it’s the sort of thing where you almost don’t want to know because the mystery is too interesting to spoil.
Eventually, all is explained, and we see that the truth of the movie goes far beyond where many might have expected. The big reveal takes what we find most repugnant about slavery and what we find most obnoxious about cultural appropriation and what we find most annoying about white guilt and blends them into something flawless and potent. It works because it makes so much sense, in its own kind of twisted logic. And it works because it only goes so far to make its point without forgetting that this is ultimately a horror movie. Ultimately, it seeks to scare, not to preach, though it never lets those two get too far from each other, and it balances them with impressive nuance.
We have to talk about the movie’s ending, which is not just the moment of truth to Get Out, but it might just be one of the most affecting ending to any horror or thriller movie made in living memory. All that can be said about it, without spoiling it for those who have not yet seen the movie, is that the story takes us to some pretty expected territory in its final act, setting up one last confrontation that involves the ultimate playing of the race card. When the moment goes down, everybody who sees it squirms because they know how this will turn out. There is a tragic inevitability to this thing; Peele knows it, and we know it. And he uses that knowledge to take this ending and deliver one of the most satisfying final moments in horror cinema history. It is not the ending that was originally shot for this film. But after the summer of events that spawned so many protest movements over the injustice black Americans face at the hands of law enforcement, there could only be one ending to this movie. And Jordan Peele nailed it.
Even if he never makes another movie ever again, Peele would have still made this one. And this one is important, not just because of its skillful ending, or its immensely entertaining story, but because of how it created a compelling piece of art to fuel a discussion people are deeply invested in not having. Let’s hope that in 100 years’ time, Get Out isn’t just remembered as a great horror movie, but as a great movie America needed precisely when it got it.