Thursday, March 2, 2017

get out

Jordan Peele's tremendous debut Get Out is one of the finest new horror films I have seen in quite some time. Perhaps the first flat-out horror masterpiece of this decade. It's also an excellent and sharp social comedy. 

After a chilling opening of a kidnapping of a black man on a nighttime suburban street (complete with Flanagan and Allen's "Run Rabbit Run" instantly adding both idiosyncrasy and wit), the story initially focuses upon Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and the anxieties of his first visit to the secluded, woodsy manor of the family of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). In true (and symbolic) fashion, the couple hit a deer en route (quite an elegantly-framed jump scare moment) and thus begins the Polanski-esque unrelenting sense of dread. The parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) are seemingly genial even if somewhat peculiar. Their worst traits seem to be their tinges of patronizing behavior. Their black groundskeeper and housekeeper (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel, respectively) act bizarrely. And the brother (Caleb Landry Jones), with his reddish blond pony and beady eyes, has a brash, off-putting intensity in the guise of a friendly headlock. 

Peele and lead Kaluuya carefully draw us into a setting of this goldish-cream colored walled house of artsy knick knacks, surrounded by slim, stark trees and soon populated with a party of quietly sinister white people (similar to the subtly off-kilter depictions of characters in '75's The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby) where the smallest gestures and comments give off a heightened sense of fear and paranoia and laughable disgust. All of it quickly descends into a terrifying and exquisitely apt "Twilight Zone" of its own.

This movie comes at a time where there are pretty much zero studio films (this one was picked up by Universal) that are fascinating and challenging, incredibly well-assembled but also encourage yelling, laughing, screaming and clapping. There have been critically praised slavery epics in the past few years--Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave the most notable and Tarantino's Django Unchained (which this film has certain glimmers of--especially in its candlelit dinner scene) and also problematic films like The Help which are from the perspective of whites and deal with racism by creating an unrealistic, plasticity over-the-top central villain. Hidden Figures was a bright spot in last year's mainstream movies by using a Hollywood glossy narrative usually tailor-made for white historical men to effectively tell the stories of three black women. Get Out shares similar themes of racism, the commodification of black bodies and minds and yet is set not in the antebellum south but in a modern-day, self-proclaimed liberal enclave (Steven Thrasher assesses these ideas much more brilliantly in his Esquire write-up). It also flips the gender role of the traditional final white girl being a black man (notoriously the black man has always been one of the first few victims in a slasher pic).

While Get Out absolutely stands on its own as an original horror film, the movie has many fun homages and relationships with other fright flicks. The rich score by Michael Abels is full of many influences: I found the use of a "Love Theme," which begins with standard earnestness and twists itself into a more absurd connotation, reminiscent to Pino Donaggio's score in Don't Look Now. A astonishing hypnosis scene--a hybrid of performance (Kaluuya's haunting, tearful eyes and Keener's chilly balefulness), sound design (the repetitive stir of a spoon in china), film editing (by Gregory Plotkin), photography (by Toby Oliver), and a creepily lulling string score--invokes a painful childhood memory of Chris which recalls the demons of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

I wasn't so into LilRel Howery's tonally off comedy but it's hard to knock something that brings so much joy. Especially as he kind of becomes this film's Scatman Crothers. A scene with him and a detective (a great small part turn by Erika Alexander) is quite hilarious and disarming. Peele's debut film is so impressive and one that seems flashy but holds such a delicate web of emotions. The balance between satire, humor, and horror is perfectly handled. Any slight misstep could have cracked the picture (reminiscent of its broken-pane poster design), which is what makes the film-making and writing all the more stunning. The cast too, is perfectly chosen and everyone plays their roles with gusto. Thank God for this picture released in the doldrums of early winter which requires so much engagement and thought (one can go on and on in all the themes it explores) but is also a tense, crowdpleasing hoot. The rousing reactions of the packed crowd I saw it with certainly added sparks to the film's already well-honed electricity. ****

-Jeffery Berg

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