Horror films are written in the blood of innocent white girls, dumb bunnies who bounce after killers and hop down the basement stairs. They trust that the world is safe and cuteness is a shield. No wonder people scream "You idiots!" at the screen.
Get Out, the first film written and directed by Jordan Peele of Comedy Central's race-confronting sketch show Key & Peele, stars a different hero: a young black man. In most slasher flicks, a guy like Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) would die first, buying one lucky blonde babe enough time to wise up. Peele's joke is that the cliché has it backward. Young black men know their lives are in peril from the very first frame — hell, before the plot even starts. They're no fools. In Get Out's opening scene, Dre (Lakeith Stanfield) is already on alert just walking through a quiet suburb. When a stranger in a white sports car pulls up to the sidewalk blaring the German bierhall fave "Run Rabbit Run," Dre instantly turns around. "Not today," he mutters. He doesn't need our advice.
But awareness can't always save a young black life. We've seen that horror film — or, really, horror documentary — shot on cellphone cameras too many times. Still, Chris is kidding when he asks his new white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams of Girls) if it's safe to spend the weekend at her family's country estate. Won't her father chase him with a shotgun? Well, Chris is mostly kidding. His best friend Rod (a hilarious LilRel Howery) isn't. "Don't go to a white girl's parents' house!" Rod yelps. Especially if their mansion is the picture of colonial splendor: red bricks, white columns, and two black servants: a beatific maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and a muscular groundskeeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson).
"Boy, do I hate the way it looks," sighs Rose's dad Dean (Bradley Whitford) of his racially stratified home, before assuring Chris that he thought Obama was a fantastic president. Peele, however, loves slipping Georgina and Walter into view. Walter's broad shoulders loom over the frame when Dean and Missy (Catherine Keener, all big smiles and big wavy hair) force Chris to give them a hug. And every move Georgina makes is scored to monster-movie music. When she pads across the hallway, Peele bangs a drum for a cheap scare. When she pours iced tea, percussion drowns the sound mix until we can't do anything but wonder what's rattling in her head. Even standing still, Georgina gets a paranoid flutter of violins — the same strings Peele screeches when the credits announce his name.
Peele's anxieties spring from the present, but the film's heart belongs to the old-school chillers of the past, those claustrophobic, candlelit, mannered nightmares where our pale heroine — or, here, dark-skinned hero — creeps through the shadows until something yells "Boo!" He's done his best to make a sincere horror film, not a horror comedy, though the audience can't help wondering when it's OK to laugh. Peele is so attuned to the tiny ways race sneaks into conversations that we hear it in every line. Our suspicions are so heightened, we start to second-guess our own senses. Is Dean being racist when he calls Chris "my man"? What about when he says he sealed off the basement because of "black mold"?
Get Out embraces stereotypes. This is a movie where the rich white folks' weapon is a literal silver spoon. They also sip milk through a straw and prattle on about their appreciation for Tiger Woods. In bright sunlight, Peele makes them look so pale they glow. They also, of course, deny that they're bigots even when the blood's on their hands. "I could give a shit what color you are!" protests one murderer, while in the same breath insisting that black people are just naturally stronger, faster, and cooler. Why, compared to Chris, wealthy white guys like him are practically disadvantaged!
The twist is that Get Out doesn't need a twist. The one it has is almost unnecessary, as is its clunky explanation. (The film's first half is better than the second.) When things go wrong, Rose acts shocked. She's down to defend her man from the cop who demands to see his ID. Chris, however, has seen it coming the whole time. He quietly hands over his license. And later, when she rages, he barely says a word. "Mmhmm," he nods. "I told you so."
Kaluuya is great at playing a doomed man who thinks he's in control. He makes a show of looking confident and at ease. At the dinner table, he throws his arm over Rose's chair and smiles, his bright, sharp eyes taking notes on everyone's behavior, especially Rose's brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), a wispy-mustached wastrel with a messy ponytail that makes him look like a drunken poet from some bygone era where black women were expected to stand around until he's ready for dessert.
Chris observes straight away that Georgina and Walter speak with unnervingly precise Mid-Atlantic elocution, an accent we haven't heard onscreen since Katharine Hepburn retired her pearls. Still, Chris turns to Georgina when he needs to let down his guard. "If there's too many white people, I get nervous," he exhales. She freezes. Then Gabriel sputters "No!" so many times the word becomes a symphony, each dissent its own chord of fear, lies, and assurance. Chris is testing her and she's failed: "That bitch is crazy!"
Yet Kaluuya's same huge eyes can, in an instant, turn as red and frightened as a child's. He sucks in a painful gasp when Chris realizes that, despite spending his entire life poised to flee, he still got himself caught in the same old trap. For an instant, his eyes fill with shame — they silently scream, "For fuck's sake, I knew someday this would happen!" — and from then on, he continues his smart and brave fight for survival.
Unlike most horror films, what haunts you at the end of Get Out isn't the discovery of a new killer. Instead, Peele taps into the bleaker fear of seeing a disaster coming from miles away and still being unable to escape. The terror is pointed here, yet audiences of all skin colors can understand that paralysis. Maybe someday we'll be asked why we didn't do more to save ourselves. Or worse: Maybe we'll be the villain.