The go-to synopsis for Get Out, the brilliant new horror film from writer-director Jordan Peele (Key & Peele), is that it's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner crossed with a racially charged update of The StepfordWives. That's about right, but Peele's game-changing film is more than that, and it's the best thing to happen to the horror genre in twenty years.
Brooklyn photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to meet the parents of his new girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), on a weekend getaway upstate. That's stressful enough as it is, but Chris has deeper anxieties. He's black, she's white, and the Armitage clan lives in the kind of tony suburban enclave where people of color feel conspicuous and vulnerable just walking down the street.
This last observation is confirmed in the film's (seemingly) unrelated opening scene, where another young black man finds himself lost in those same suburbs. Bad Things Happen, and the sequence establishes the film's nervy tone. This is a story that's as aware of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant as it is of Halloween and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Back in Brooklyn, Rose assures Chris that her parents are not racists, and indeed, Chris is warmly welcomed by her neurosurgeon dad (Bradley Whitford) and psychotherapist mom (Catherine Keener). The 'rents seem harmless and square, making clumsy attempts to connect with Chris by conspicuously name- dropping President Obama and Jesse Owens. “We're huggers!” dad says, embracing Chris on the front porch of the house.
Yeah, about that house: it's huge and beautiful, like a mansion—or even a plantation, one might say. Out front, the black groundskeeper, Willy, stares down Chris with thinly veiled hostility. Inside, Georgina, the black housekeeper, serves lemonade with a smile as fragile as porcelain.
Chris proceeds, gradually and subtly, to freak the fuck out. As well he should. Something is deeply kinked here in the Armitage compound. Among the film's many core strengths is the lead performance by Kaluuya, a British actor who mines the ingenious subtleties in Peele's script. Kaluuya has at least two scenes of such tonal dexterity and raw emotional wattage that I forgot to breathe for several long seconds.
Horror movies aren't where you usually look for extraordinary acting, but this isn't your usual horror movie. As events progress over the course of the weekend, the movie boldly swerves though scenes of high drama, unexpected comedy, simmering menace, and sudden violence. In his role as screenwriter, Peele skillfully assembles scenes to heighten both comedy and horror elements with maximum efficiency. It's a testament to Peele's roots in comedy as well as his recognition of its structural similarity to horror. It's all about the timing. As a first-time director, he also displays an innate proficiency with trickier elements of feature filmmaking, such as the careful disclosure of plot information and the maintenance of a consistent tone. The music is flat-out perfect.
As a storyteller, Peele never goes for the easy out. The racial commentary is threaded directly into the fabric of the horror story, peaking with one bloodcurdling image from a silent auction at the end of a neighborhood party. It triggers a cascade of sinister revelations about the true nature of the Armitage clan. The movie makes a series of dizzying third-act pivots, ultimately burrowing into the Gothic roots of the horror-movie genre itself. There's one scene in particular—see if you can spot it—where Vincent Price could pop into frame and it would make total sense.
It's exhilarating, is what it is. With Get Out, Peele has delivered an effective popular entertainment in an established format while at the same time probing some very real horrors concerning race and class in America today. The beauty of it is that these two tracks don't just run in parallel; they're fully integrated into one fearlessly scary movie.