As viewers of HBO’s “Girls” already know, there is not a more bone-chilling character ever invented than Marnie Michaels, chock full of insane self-belief and irritatingly perfect teeth. When the actress who plays her, Allison Williams, appears in “Get Out,” your heart is immediately in your throat.
Her Type-A character in this film, Rose Armitage, has been dating her photographer boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) for a couple months and we see them first as Chris packs his bag for a weekend visit with Rose’s parents. He has just one important question before they hop in the car: “Do they know I’m black?”
Rose says they don’t and that it would never matter anyway, using the 2017 version of “I have lots of black friends” to explain her parents’ enlightened outlook: “They would have voted for Obama a third time if they could have.”
When the besotted pair arrive upstate, the Armitages are as promised—Dean (Bradley Whitford) is an affable neurosurgeon and Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist who helpfully offers to hypnotize Chris to fix his smoking addiction. Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) is a more outwardly troubled example of Sothern gothic, always wielding an object he makes horrifying, whether a rocks glass, lacrosse stick or ukulele.
The narrative of “Get Out” indulges in the usual horror film teases. Chris is told not to venture into the basement (it’s closed due to black mold) and to enjoy all the peace and quiet (there’s no other house in sight).
But things aren’t really alarming until we meet the Armitages’ household staff. There’s Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who cooks and cleans and Walter (Marcus Henderson), a groundskeeper. They are so rigidly servile that they resemble antebellum cyborgs, full of industry and doll-like forced smiles. Perhaps because he is the only other African-American male in the vicinity, Chris attempts to codeswitch when he chats with Walter, to learn how the man really feels about his position. It does not go well. Chris, unsettled, reports to Rose, “It’s not what he says, it’s how he says it.”
Kaluuya makes excellent use of his expressive eyes and lays a variety of sidelong glances at his surroundings, registering everything from shade to distaste to creeping terror. His only outlet is phone calls with his TSA agent buddy Rod (an uproarious Lil Rel Howery), who tells Chris straightaway that the visit to Rose’s parents will lead inevitably to enslavement in a sex cult. He also delivers a hilarious Jeffrey Dahmer riff that is unfortunately still not enough to convince Chris to run.
In his first directorial effort, Jordan Peele is flat out brilliant at ratcheting tension—the stakes rise from the daily microaggressions over a long weekend (Chris is subjected to some unwanted bicep fondling and gross commentary on his “genetic makeup”) to the insane racial violence that is too often inextricable from African-American lives. Peele is also razor sharp in the small details, as when he includes a television commercial for the United Negro College Fund and makes a great double entendre on their slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
It is fitting that Chris’s final, belated recognition of the horror around him comes when he snaps a picture with his phone. As video recordings are made more readily available, the bloody questions raised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement are becoming harder for politicians to ignore. Whether via law enforcement body cams, iPhone captures or insightful films like “Get Out,” one still hopes that moving images might help stop the trespasses of the police against their citizenry. The flash from Chris’s camera illuminates, however briefly, America’s dark interior. Watch the ‘Get Out’ trailer below:
‘Get Out’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 1:43. Visit cinemawest.com.