Spooky encounters of the white kind
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - March 26, 2017 - 12:00am

There are moments in Get Out, Jordan Peele’s runaway horror hit, that give you the creepy crawlies, and they’re not always the ones when an attacker lunges out of the dark. No, such moments come when unassuming (but slightly apprehensive) Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young African-American photographer, tries to mingle with his white girlfriend’s parents and friends at a lawn party — guests who treat him like a cultural trophy, saying things like they “would’ve gladly voted for Obama a third time,” or pointing out how they met Tiger Woods, or announcing that “black is in,” or else simply referring to Chris as a “fine physical specimen.”

Yes, well-meaning but clueless white people get a skewering in Get Out. But all kinds of other things get skewered as well.

In this crazy world we live in, after all, there are people who believe that Hillary Clinton ran a sex slave ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor. There are people who believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya who personally wiretapped Donald Trump’s phones. So is it really so farfetched to believe the conspiracy-minded plot of Get Out, which cost $4.5 million to make and has so far grossed $139 million worldwide?

Get Out follows interracial couple Chris and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) on a road trip from the city to meet her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) in some remote rural hideaway. Any comparisons to Loving (about the challenges of a real-life interracial couple in Virginia) or Meet the Parents soon evaporate in growing terror: Chris quickly susses out that this family, their servants (both black) and all their friends are not what they seem. When Mr. Armitage, showing off trinkets he’s collected from his world travels, blithely says, “It’s such a privilege to experience someone else’s culture,” we have no idea what kind of cultural appropriation he’s talking about.

We’ve come into a crop of “social thrillers” lately — horror movies, often, that expose the underbelly of American society. Last year’s Don’t Breathe looked at people left behind by the financial and housing crisis of 2008. Green Room (2016) meanwhile pictured lovable Patrick Stewart as a lethal white supremacist working to silence members of a hardcore punk band who have witnessed too much. And of course, a long time ago, there was Night of the Living Dead, in which the black survivor of a zombie attack is, unfortunately, mistaken for the undead and gunned down by a group of overzealous rednecks, his body pitched onto a bonfire. Get Out also takes on the familiar tropes of the fish out of water (or the rabbit on the run, as the disturbing opening song by Flanagan & Allen puts it), cast into an unfathomable environment and forced to improvise an escape. Peele — half of the comedy duo Key & Peele — says he was inspired by 1975 shocker The Stepford Wives, and you can see why: that movie’s deadpan satirical tone disguised a truly creepy premise: what if all the women in Stepford were being rewired to become more submissive and male-pleasing?

Get Out goes further, and debut director Peele — who based some of his script on real encounters with the white world — has a hell of a fun time sending up not only white liberal clichés, and how skeevy these can be for black Americans, but also our own horror movie expectations, specifically our tendency to warn the people onscreen not to do stupid things. Because they will, most probably, die.

There comes a point, if you are white and watching Get Out, that you might begin to experience an uncomfortable sense of reverse racism. You may wonder: Are white people really this scary to African-Americans? Then you remember the number of African-Americans shot dead by white cops in recent years, often documented on cellphone video; you remember the openly racist skinheads pumping their fists at Trump rallies, and you think: Yup, they just might be.

Fortunately, Peele has actually crafted a dark comedy here, not just a social thriller, and there are moments that just make you chuckle out loud, albeit uncomfortably. Kaluuya (from the BBC series Skins) is remarkably effective, putting you not only in the skin of a black man surrounded by creepifying white people, but also letting you experience it through his own eyes. (One character memorably tells him, “I want to see with your eyes.”) Williams ups her game as the supportive girlfriend who reassures Chris that her parents are “real liberals.” Keener is profoundly disturbing as a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist who disapproves of Chris’s smoking habit. (Stir of Echoes gets a visual reference here.) Whitford is typically strong here, playing a dad who’s not as country club squeaky-clean as he appears. And for comic relief, there’s Lil Rel Howery as Chris’s save-the-day TSA agent pal, Rod. (Watch Rod come this close to figuring out what’s really going on halfway through the movie.)

Peele builds his suspense deftly, taking us through each reveal and layering the tension until we can only echo the movie’s title and shout it at the screen.

Yes, there are more than enough seat-clutching shocks in Get Out, but there are also some really funny insights into how we view horror movies, and perhaps even about how African-Americans view horror movies. And as Rod points out, they’re always right.

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