“I wanna be black,” Lou Reed once sang, reflecting the largely unspoken feelings of many white people everywhere. The addendum, of course, is that there are some white people who want to be as cool as black people but without having to suffer any of the bigotry and oppression. That’s just one of the many potent subthreads of Get Out, Jordan Peele’s extraordinary and genuinely creepy directorial debut. Peele succeeds where sometimes even more experienced filmmakers fail: He’s made an agile entertainment whose social and cultural observations are woven so tightly into the fabric that you’re laughing even as you’re thinking, and vice-versa.
Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a successful and respected photographer, treks out to an extraordinarily white enclave—it’s so town-and-country chichi, and so remote, that it doesn’t even qualify as the suburbs—to meet his girlfriend’s family. Rose (Alison Williams) is the cool girlfriend everyone wants, so it only makes sense that she’d land a cool boyfriend like Chris. Before the two head out on their sojourn, Chris asks, hesitantly, if she has told her family that he’s black. She replies that she hasn’t, but that he shouldn’t worry: Her dad is sure to blurt out that he’d have voted for Obama a third time if he could, but that’s just because he’s “a lame dad.” Her parents, she insists adamantly, are not racists.
And she’s not wrong: When the couple roll up to the faux-modest zillion-dollar family homestead, mom and dad (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford, perfectly cast as members of that substrata, the scruffy rich) greet Chris at the door by wrapping him in their arms. “We’re huggers!” dad announces, hearty and innocent in his very squareness. It all seems fine, but groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) eye Chris warily: He’s “like” them, but not, and both he and they know it. Chris chats with them amiably, making every effort to cross the shaky bridge of class, of education, of something, that separates them. But they’re cold and strange in return, and he isn’t sure how to read that.
Even though all self-proclaimed progressive people like to think we’re comfortable talking about racial divisions in America, we’re really not. And that’s what makes Get Out—in addition to being an unsettling, and occasionally very funny, thriller—pretty close to a work of genius. As one half of the dazzling comedy duo Key and Peele—the other half is Keegan-Michael Key—Peele has always been attuned to thorny race-related questions. Why is it that well-intentioned white people who try so hard to be attuned to “the black experience” can be so deeply annoying? And even though we should all be accepting of interracial relationships, there can be misgivings on either side. Peele—who also wrote the script—wrestles with all of those ideas, and much more. His movie is sardonic but never bitter. He’s inquisitive but never sour-spirited—he prefers asking questions to scoring points.
But if there’s a lot to unpack in Get Out, there’s also pure pleasure to be had just in watching the plot unfold—you never quite know where Peele is going next. This is inventive and lively horror filmmaking: Peele uses simple elements—a taxidermied deer’s head hanging on a paneled wall, an old-style console TV set—to build a sinister suburban-Gothic mood: It’s as if the world of affluent white people, with its status symbols and self-congratulatory broad-mindedness, were itself a kind of dark magic, impenetrable and at least vaguely untrustworthy—not to mention very, very uncool.
And while the last thing you generally look for in a horror film is terrific acting, Get Out is loaded with it. Kaluuya’s Chris, handsome and sweet, is the quintessential great boyfriend, working hard to connect with Rose’s family in spite of the unwitting insults they keep dropping: He’s instantly sympathetic, the guy whose side you’re on no matter what. Lil Rel Howery, as Chris’s best friend (and stalwart TSA officer) Rod, steps in with breezy comic relief just when the movie needs it. Even the actors in smaller roles—like Gabriel, as housekeeper Georgina—spin subtle spells: You’re never sure if these characters are malevolent or just understandably resentful, but by the end, when you’ve put all the pieces together, you begin to understand just how delicately calibrated these performances are. They’re all part of a picture that asks difficult questions and offers no easy answers. Get Out is the movie for the world we live in today. If we stop thinking, we’re dead.