This piece discusses the plot of “Get Out” in great detail. Don’t email me and complain that I didn’t put up a spoiler warning. Also, the first paragraph in this post has been updated, since I made a mistake in the scenario in my notes.
There are a lot of upsetting images and ideas in Jordan Peele’s new horror movie, “Get Out,” which has become a box-office smash and a cultural touchstone since it arrived in theaters in February. One of them, in particular, has lingered in my brain in the ten days since I’ve seen the movie: a middle-aged black man turns to a young white woman who is reaching for a shotgun to shoot a young black man. “Let me do it,” the older man tells her. He picks up the weapon, shooting not her target, but her. And then he turns the gun on himself, not out of fear that he’ll be punished for the woman’s death, but out of terror at what he himself might do, or become.
“Get Out” follows that young man, Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) as he accompanies his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) on a visit to her parents that his best friend Rod (LilRel Howery) warned him not to take. He encounters the expected hazards of the countryside — cops who demand his ID when he isn’t driving, middle-aged liberals who blather on about how much they love Barack Obama — but there is a more fundamental awkwardness running through the evening.
Ultimately, Chris discovers that Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) run a cult of middle-aged white people (and one Asian man) who hope to transplant their brains into the bodies of young African Americans with the goal of extending, and perhaps enhancing, their lives. Rose’s role in the family is to seduce a regular supply of young black men (and a few women) who will be auctioned off during the cult’s annual gathering. And it turns out that the Armitage’s housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson) are the family’s first two victims, their bodies and nervous systems stolen to house the brains of Dean Armitage’s parents. Chris very nearly joins their number, until he manages to resist Missy’s hypnosis and break violently free of the macabre surgical theater concealed in the Armitage’s tasteful, sprawling house.
Since it arrived in theaters and began its march toward the $100 million-in-ticket-sales mark, “Get Out” has inspired rafts of terrific criticism that take on everything from the roles white women play in preserving white supremacy to the adoption of milk as racist iconography to the psychological toll of living in a constant thrum of fear and anxiety to the racial history of America’s suburbs.
I saw all of those things in “Get Out,” a film that is clearly meticulously structured to invite deep readings and wide-ranging interpretations; it’s a movie designed to be consumed by the Internet in the best possible way. Something else lingered with me as well. “Get Out” is a fundamentally lonely movie, not merely for what it says about what might lurk behind awkward white attempts at ingratiation, but in the ways the Armitages’ nefarious plot divides black people from each other, too.
Chris’s interactions with Georgina, Walter and Logan (the great Lakeith Stanfield), who arrives with one of the white guests at the Armitage’s party, are the most obvious, and ultimately the most violent, example of this thread in the movie.
Chris approaches all three at different points in the movie, assuming they’ll provide him with respite and solidarity in an otherwise all-white space, a space in which he can stop holding himself so stiffly and carefully. Each time, something goes wrong. Chris is unnerved by Georgina’s uncanny stillness and eerie weeping, her insistence that the Armitages treat her and Walter “like family.” Walter makes a strange declaration that Rose is “lovely…. One of a kind. Top of the line. A real doggone keeper,” leading Chris to wonder if Walter views him as a romantic rival. And after Chris approaches Logan at the party, Logan betrays him by declaring to the white guests that “Chris was just telling me how much more comfortable he was with me being here.” Logan hasn’t merely denied Chris comfort, he’s magnified Chris’s anxiety by drawing attention to it.
In each of these interactions, Georgina, Walter and Logan seem eerie in part because there’s a mismatch between what Chris sees when he looks at them, and what he hears when they open their mouths. I would say Chris and those of us in the audience are unnerved because Georgina, Walter and Logan appear to be acting white, but that’s not actually what’s going on. Thanks to the diabolical interactions of the Armitages’, all three find their bodies inhabited by the brains of white people, which coexist uneasily with the portion of their original occupants’ brains that were left behind to make sure their nervous systems still functioned. We see black people, who turn out to be white people who are trying, and largely failing, to act convincingly black.
Once we, and Chris, realize what’s happened to Georgina, Walter and Logan, we feel horror and pity. But though a fraction of their original selves remains inside them, capable of being revealed by a camera flash, “Get Out” doesn’t suggest that they can ever be made whole again.
When Logan recovers himself long enough to shout the agonized warning that gives “Get Out” its title, he’s quickly put under again by Missy. Chris tries to help Georgina during his flight from the Armitage’s house, but she attacks him while he is driving, resulting in a crash that kills her. And even though Walter knows the entire Armitage family is dead, and he has regained control of his own mind, he still commits suicide anyway, not trusting that he won’t be returned to his puppet state. Chris can get out. But he’s the exception, rather than the rule.
If Chris’s story explores what it means to break free while others remain in mortal danger and the potential survivor’s guilt associated with that experience, in a parallel story, Rod finds that telling the truth about racist violence separates him from other African Americans in another disturbing way.
Rod was, from the beginning of “Get Out,” suspicious of Chris’s visit to the Armitages. Initially, the movie sets him up as narrower-minded and less-polished than Chris (Rod is a TSA agent, while Chris is a photographer); Rod’s suspicion of the Armitages seems backward and misplaced. But as “Get Out” progresses, it turns out that his pessimism was correct, not cynical.
The problem is that now that we believe him, no one else will. Rod goes to the police with his concerns, and though Detective Latoya (“Living Single” veteran Erika Alexander) initially seems to be listening to him, when she brings in two other non-white cops (Jeronimo Spinx and Ian Casselberry), it becomes clear that she just wants to share a laugh at what she believes to be Rod’s utter preposterousness.
It’s a funny scene, but a cruel one, too. The world of “Get Out,” and the one we inhabit, are so set up to defend the presumption of white goodness* that Rod’s allegations make him seem mentally ill even to other people of color — and Rod hasn’t even come close to grasping the true depths of the Armitages’ nefarious scheme.
Ultimately, Rod simply goes to rescue Chris himself. “I mean, I told you not to go in that house,” Rod tells Chris, unable to resist one of the most justified I-told-you-sos in cinematic history. At the end of “Get Out,” Chris and Rod roar off together, their close friendship and their trust in each other restored. But though Chris has been in much greater danger, both he and Rod have learned that white people aren’t the only ones capable of betraying or abandoning you. They may be safe together in Rod’s TSA sedan, but the woods that surround them are dark and deep.
*Something Rose relies on in a scene where she hopes to frame Chris for attacking her, a moment that Allison Williams plays with such evil glee and confidence that it took my breath away.