From its very first moments, “Get Out” puts viewers in a squirm-inducing state of discomfort and outright hilarity that doesn’t let up until its go-for-broke final act. The sly, sure-footed directorial debut of Jordan Peele — one half of the brilliant comic duo Key and Peele — this horror film has roots as firmly planted in the works of Jonathan Swift as John Carpenter, interweaving acidic social satire between the jump scares. As deeply serious as it is deeply funny, “Get Out” is perfectly timed to jolt audiences out of their midwinter blahs, delivering classic genre whammies with a generous serving of cultural critique.
That opening scene, by the way, takes place on a leafy residential street at night, when an African American man is chatting on his phone, trying to find an address. When a low-slung white car begins to follow him, what seemed like a lighthearted jab at white suburbia takes a far darker turn. After a credits sequence accompanied by an eerie-sounding vocal score, “Get Out” introduces its chief protagonists: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a gifted aspiring photographer, and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), who is preparing to take him to meet her parents upstate. “Do they know that I’m black?” he asks tentatively. She swats his concern away. “My dad would have voted for Obama a third time if he could,” she says brightly. “The love is so real.”
Eh, not quite. When Chris and Rose get to her family’s sprawling property, things seem askew in a too-perfect, Stepford-Wife way. Her parents, Missy and Dean (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford), are warm and welcoming, with Dean addressing Chris as “my man” and showering him with hugs. But Walter (Marcus Henderson) and Georgina (Betty Gabriel), the African American groundskeeper and cook, seem suspended in a state of constant glazed docility. Rose’s brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) seems determined to give Christopher Walken’s “Annie Hall” brother a run for his money as creepiest movie sibling of all time. What’s up with all of that?
The answers come eventually in “Get Out,” but not before Peele has established a note-perfect tone of both dread and sharp-eyed humor when it comes to race. If his first sequence grievously recalls the death of Trayvon Martin, Chris’s misadventures with Rose’s family and their seemingly well-meaning friends bring to mind everything from 19th-century slave auctions to James Baldwin in the recent documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” Here are the “moral monsters” of which he speaks, committing unspeakable acts borne of their willful blindness and heedless, voraciously self-perpetuating privilege.
The precise form that sense of superiority takes remains a progressively more disturbing mystery throughout most of “Get Out,” during which Chris makes frantic calls to his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a fast-talking TSA agent who provides most of the film’s comic relief by way of such timeless observations as: “Don’t go to a white girl’s parents’ house.” Taking cues from such masters as Carpenter, George Romero, John Frankenheimer and Alfred Hitchcock, Peele assuredly ratchets up the tension until an action-heavy final act in which the gore splurts and splatters with particularly cathartic satisfaction.
Anyone expecting “Get Out” to be a shallow take on racial animus is in for a far more nuanced, unsettling experience: Peele, who is biracial, does something far more sophisticated in taking notions of assimilation, cultural appropriation, white liberal pieties and the fetishizing of black bodies to their most existentially fatal extreme. Like all great movies, “Get Out” faithfully obeys the conventions of its genre — in this case horror films shot through with brutal wit and sharp-eyed allegory — while getting at profound psychic and political realities. The shocks and the laughs are thoroughly entertaining, but it’s the truth of “Get Out” that’s so real.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, bloody images and obscenity, including sexual references. 105 minutes.