Director: Jordan Peele. Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, Marcus Henderson. 15 cert, 104 mins
Get Out is one of the first films expressly to be set in a post-Obama era, even if writer-director Jordan Peele, having shot it about a year ago, couldn’t have known exactly what ghastly frights this era would entail. Either way, there is not a Trump voter in sight, because this is a horror-satire about covert racism – liberal racism – not the out-and-proud kind.
The movie rattles with provocations, among them an opening sequence in which a young black guy (Lakeith Stanfield) walks down a suburban street, talking on his phone, and is pounced upon by a kerb-crawler in a sportscar. Grim echoes of the Trayvon Martin case thud around in your consciousness, setting the tone for feature-length paranoia about being a black outsider in an all-white enclave. It’s less Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, more Guess What’s Being Served.
Perfect, white Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) wants to allay the concerns of her boyfriend, black photographer Chris (British-Ugandan star Daniel Kaluuya), about the family he hasn’t met yet, five months into their relationship. He’s anxious about their trip upstate, even if the initial reception from her parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) is all hugs and bonhomie, and they don’t bat an eyelid about his skin colour.
Peele makes the interesting choice of showing this first encounter from afar, in a long master shot, not close-ups. The body language all seems perfectly above board. But the closer we get to the Armitages, the more an eye-widening below-board-ness creeps in. Why is their basement locked? Why are their two employees – a housemaid and groundsman – both black, not to mention stricken and socially paralysed?
And is their house not a little like some Rhode Island equivalent of an antebellum plantation, with iced tea being served on the lawn? (The movie was largely shot in Alabama for tax reasons, and there's another nod to the South when someone uses "One Mississippi..." as a counting chant.)
All those questions will be answered as the film heads towards its grisly and breathlessly suspenseful last reel – which Peele, until now a comedy specialist, handles with an impressive grasp of pacing, considered shock, and restraint where it counts. Still, the explanations are less interesting than the uneasy edge in the build-up, the escalation of sly microaggressions coming at Chris from all sides.
We begin to realise that Rose – despite her seemingly relaxed attitude as a “woke” white liberal – can barely interact with her boyfriend without somehow policing racism on his behalf. When a cop suspiciously requests his driving licence, it’s she who makes an awkwardly big issue of it.
Chris is used to this sort of thing; equally used to dealing with it. Kaluuya’s glum acquiescence, faultlessly conveyed, is a statement in its own right: the key is that Chris accepts his lot politely but unhappily as a prisoner of white attitudes, however self-congratulatory they may be.
The horror elements of the film lie in wait, just as they did in satires of a former generation – The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby. One aspect of Chris’s predicament involves being forcibly detached from reality through hypnosis, disappearing through the floor into a dark netherworld which Keener’s character calls “the Sunken Place”. Visually, it’s reminiscent of that tarry trap in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. But this borrowing works because of the film’s stark political awareness – it becomes a floating, flailing image of being impotently shafted by white hegemony.
Whitford, among the white cast, plays off Kaluuya’s discomfort beautifully, and seems especially alive to the comedy in this scenario. With his foregrounded Ivy League complacency and cringey mantra of “my man!”, he suggests where West Wing characters lock up all their least politically correct thoughts.
The very ending could have been stronger – you can sense Peele edging in a too-full-on direction, then backing out of it with a too-facile fix. But it’s still the most forceful and inventive American horror film since It Follows. Leaving it, I stumbled straight across a joshing coach party of elderly white folk in black tie, and the fact that I instinctively shuddered is some testament to Get Out’s clammy charge.