One of the most ingenious and penetrating horror films – if you can even call it a horror film – that I have seen in some time, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut revolves around the relationship between Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), and Allison’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), who he preparing to meet for the first time as the film begins. Given that Chris is black and Allison’s parents come from a wealthy white suburban family, he’s a little tentative about spending the weekend with them, and while Allison assures him that everything will be fine, things start to go awry the moment he sets foot in their house. Between Dean’s efforts to convince Chris that he’s OK with black people and Missy’s interest in showing Chris how her hypnotherapy practice works, something doesn’t seem right, especially since the Armitage family’s hired help are all black folk, all of whom seem to be operating in a hypnotic trance themselves. When the local community descend on the Armitage household for their annual get-together, Chris feels himself even more scrutinised, and from there things just get more unsettling, uncanny and horrific, until he finds himself fighting to leave the property at all costs.
On the face of it, that certainly sounds like a horror film, and yet part of the originality of Get Out lies in the way in which it defies any specific genre cues – or, rather, the way in which it challenges how our expectations of realism are shaped by genre cues. As with Dear White People, this is a film in which “realism” is so bound up with white expectations and assumptions that the only way to get a handle on those expectations and assumptions is to opt for an off-realism that never quite permits Get Out to settle into what might be expected to constitute a tastefully or organically integrated film. While there are some magnificent cinematic set pieces then, they’re deliberately undercut by a pervasive sense of fragmentation, as if Peele has stitched together a series of sketches and short films that can’t – or won’t – cohere into a seamless whole. In fact, that seamless coherence and incorporation of Chris’ experience into a white narrative is what he has to avoid at all costs, in what often plays more as a sinister comedy, or a sketch comedy, than a horror film per se, rendering it particularly difficult to orient oneself with respect to the horror cues. To make things even more discomfiting, the horror itself can be quite broad and physical at times, in the tradition of Key and Peele, refusing to ever settle into a more “tactful” or “tasteful” absurdity. Nowhere is that clearer than in the way in which the African-American “help” themselves perform African-American stereotypes – black people doing blackface – in a kind of riposte to the liberal white demographic charmed by films like The Help in the first place.
At one level, that tonal indeterminacy just serves to make Get Out all the more disorienting, unsettling and entertaining. At the same time, however, it also plays as a parodic comment on suburban horror itself, which is such an inextricably white genre that there is inevitably something dissonant, atonal and, ultimately, comic about how it unfolds when centred on a black protagonist. After all, suburban horror is nearly always about white families who find their neighbourhoods invaded by an alien – often urban – presence, while the suburban slasher himself is nearly always a consolidation – albeit a monstrous consolidation – of all the fatherly, paternal and white protectionist instincts that are supposed to drive suburbia in the first place. In a very emphatic way, then, suburban and slasher horror performs a kind of allegorical reinstatement of white suburban authority, whereas in Get Out it is the horror itself – the fear of some kind of intrusion into white normalcy – that is the source of evil. What ensues is a kind of mock suburban horror that can’t ever completely commit to horror as a register, but that still needs to engage with it as part of its parody as well, which is perhaps why the moments that are ostensibly designed to be scary are frequently the most ludicrous, overdone and melodramatic, with Peele seeming to strategically preclude horror at just the moment you might expect it to climax.
In addition, given that suburban horror is traditionally fixated with fetishistic thresholds, barriers and boundaries, it makes sense that Peele opts for quite a porous aesthetic, allowing different scenes, registers and tones to bleed into each other in an apparently indiscriminate way, until the audience’s desire for some kind of clear threshold-experience is itself exposed as a kind of subliminal yearning for segregation and racial demarcation. On the face of it, that can make the film more implausible – it seems unbelievable, initially, that nobody would have made a connection between Rose and her previous black boyfriends, all of whom went missing – but the effect is to draw out the contrivance and implausibility of the suburban horror mode itself, even as the film confronts its audience with how much they might be residually interested in it. In the process, too, a new kind of realism emerges, in which it really – and realistically – is possible that Rose might never have been investigated, and that the cursory expendability of black bodies in the United States might be every bit as brutal as the film suggests. At a broader level, this places Get Out alongside recent films like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Only Lovers Left Alive and It Follows, all of which dissociate suburban horror from even the most residually idyllic form of suburbia and instead treat it as a structure of feeling that animates the American consciousness even more now that the suburban dream has been decimated in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and the rise of a new white precariat.
The result is a kind of camp bathos – again, off-realism – that climaxes with the incredible final act, in which Chris is chained, bound and hypnotised in the basement of the Armitage household, where he finally discovers that the family have spent the last twenty years perfecting a scientific procedure by which their consciousness can be transferred to those of other people by way of a combination of hypnotherapy and brain surgery. By this point, then, it almost feels as if Peele is presenting the experience of psychological suspense itself as a white affect – at least when embedded in a suburban mindset – transitioning abruptly to brutal body horror as if to capture the effect that white paranoia has on the actual bodies of African-Americans, even or especially when those structures of suspicion don’t appear to be racially motivated. In the process, what initially appeared to be a purely psychological mode of coercion turns out to be the mere precursor to the actual control and distribution of black brains and bodies, in a conclusion that is more than worthy of David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and other pioneers of prosthetic body horror in its bizarre, science-fictional brutality.
At the same time, the disturbing revelation of this final scene is that all the African-American people we have seen the Armitage household so far have actually been white people acting – literally – in blackface in order to prevent Chris realising who they actually are. Obviously, Chris’ first question is why these wealthy white racists would choose to return as African-American people, and the answer quickly becomes pretty clear – because they don’t think that they’re racists. Instead, apparently, they have inhabited African-American people because they admire blackness, both in terms of its perceived physical attributes and cultural cache, and yet in that very gesture the film beautifully pinpoints the racist subtext of white liberals, who often seem anxious to erase racial difference altogether in order to allow them to not merely speak on behalf of – but to speak as – their black brothers and sisters. By targeting liberal racism in this way – or by present a certain kind of liberalism as an agent of racism – Peele draws an utterly excoriating portrait of white liberal Americans craving for black bodies to act through, black minds to think through and black eyes to see through, even if it means completely denying all racial difference in the process. As the film presents it, then, the most dangerous and invisible racist gesture lies in claiming to speak as a black person – even in the most sympathetic way – just as the most terrifying figure in the film, Rose Armitage, turns out to be the white girl who is normally the privileged victim of suburban horror.
At the same time, however, Rose still is, in some sense, the victim of the film, just as she’s still the personification of suburban horror – it’s simply that Peele has now distanced us from that horror and forced us to experience it from an oblique angle. For that reason, it often feels as if Chris himself is watching a suburban horror film from the inside, especially during his hypnosis sessions, as all the familiar cues and tropes play out around him, creating a sense of utter incongruity that contributes in no small way to the film’s absurd tone, along with the crushing, mounting sense of passivity that comes from being cast as the intruder in someone else’s drama. As the horror escalates, then, so too does the comedy – Peele brings in “Time of My Life,” the ultimate white anthem, at a critical point in the third act – as the atmosphere and ambience of American cinematic suburbia is collapsed into a mechanism for regulating black bodies, even or especially when it appears to present itself as a liberal, post-racial space. By the end, Peele suggests that being black in America is like being forced to passively endure the events of a suburban horror film anxious to construe you as the antagonist, as Chris finds himself more and more constricted and confined to being the horrific spectator of his own devolution into a vehicle for white liberal pride.
Apparently, in the original ending, this resulted in Chris himself being arrested, held responsible for everything that had transpired at the Armitage household, and taken away for further questioning. While there’s no denying the power of that gesture, I think that Peele’s revised ending is even more powerful, not just because it concludes with a note of resistance, but because of how it reaches back to blaxploitation as a way of framing that resistance and envisaging a world outside suburbia and beyond white realist cinema. After all, in its unique blend of anarchic comedy, denatured suspense and offbeat realism, Get Out perhaps makes most sense as a work of late blaxploitation, defiantly pre-post-racial politics in its eviscerating swipe at self-proclaimed non-racists, and utterly uncompromising in its vision of the toll that even the most liberal agendas can take on black bodies if not handled with the right amount of deference, modesty and genuine acknowledgment of difference.