Horror film does double duty as social satire

Exploring racial paranoia in Get Out

Hot on the trail of the Oscar-winning Moonlight and half-a-century after Katherine Hepburn gasped at her daughter's black fiancée in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, here comes Get Out, a "social thriller" about a black man trapped in a white horror. These weird white folk voted for President Obama -- they keep repeating that to assure themselves and others -- but their exaggerated civility is more creepy and menacing than ever in Trump-ruled America.

"Do they know I'm black?" asked Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) prior to a weekend trip to visit his white girlfriend's parents. Rose (Allison Williams) assures him that everything will be fine, that their Obama-loving mom and dad "are not racist". Good luck, Chris.

Get Out is a social satire that hitches a wild ride on the horror genre. It doesn't smuggle its agenda on racial tensions but makes a bloodied meal out of it, flaunting B-flick exploitation devices while firmly playing out the black-white split consciousness. Directed by Jordan Peele, who has become one of the hottest filmmakers in Hollywood after the success of this film, Get Out is a revenge fantasy that at once complicates and simplifies the dynamics of race.

That may not matter much, since the film is a bizarrely entertaining experience. After the opening scene, in which a black man is assaulted on an empty street, we meet Chris and Rose, a lovey-dovey couple, as they pack their bags for a weekend visit. Driving upcountry they arrive at Rose's parents', a handsome brick mansion set at the edge of the wood in a wealthy, predominantly white area. The father (Bradley Whitford) is a surgeon, the mother (Katherine Keener, always perfect) is a psychologist specialising in hypnotism. They warmly welcome Chris into their home, make an awkward joke about Jesse Owens, the black Olympian from the 1930s, and stress that they would vote for Obama a third time if they could.

They also keep two black servants -- a maid and a gardener -- in a vaguely slavery-era household arrangement. The visual cues and costuming also make sure we feel the jarring set-up of this house where the hosts are excessively, smarmily welcoming to their new black guest.

Let's leave the plot at that, for it's best to discover for yourself, like Chris does, what's being covered in the basement of that house. Get Out binds its time, rolling out odd clues, spooky jokes and keeping the cold meat chilled under the surface in the first half. We know there's something wrong and we know the black dude is being cast unwittingly in some sort of nightmare by this group of rich white people. It works because Peele has sense of timing and because of the way the writer/director sticks to genre tradition -- sometimes with a self-reflexive laugh -- and simultaneously updates it for a specific sociological texture.

Is the film exploiting the racial debate in the age of Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson riots? Maybe, but couched in the rule of horror cinema, exploitation has always been part of the contract and Peele's film has wit, humour and a social urgency that never feels cynical. The race relations in Get Out also suggest something more convoluted, hinting at the way we desire something from those whom we hate, or whom we fear, and it applies to both sides of the racial fault line. "White chicks always got us!" said a black man. On the contrary, old white golfers looked at Tiger Woods in his prime and wished they had half his strength. Simplistic, maybe, but this dark desire implicates a darker effect at least in the film's imagination.

The cast makes it click. Daniel Kaluuya, a Brit, is halfway between looking innocent and a true survivor. He can't be too smart -- it's a horror film -- but when things get ugly he's convincing as someone who won't hold back. Allison Williams, from Girls, is the lovely girlfriend who stands with her man. But maybe she doesn't have to: Get Out is about how we should get out of our own abyss conditioned by familiarity and history, and it's one of the smartest films out there.

Get Out

Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams.

Directed by Jordan Peele.

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