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'Get Out' Offers Sharp Satire Along With The Scares

Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya in <em>Get Out</em>.
Justin Lubin
Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.

As the shorter half of the sketch-comedy duo Key & Peele, Jordan Peele was ever on the lookout for distinctive ways to tackle ethnic stereotyping, so it makes sense that he'd leaven his film directing debut with more than just a dash of social satire.

Get Out, billed in its opening credits as "from the mind of Jordan Peele," is a horror-flick with a decidedly Peelean take on genre and on race — one that subverts familiar horror tropes while encouraging audiences to simultaneously react to them, and step back to look at them more closely.

As Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is packing to accompany his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) to her parent's country house for the first time, she has lots of questions — about whether he remembered his toothbrush, his deodorant, his cozy clothes — while he has just has one: "Do they know I'm black?"

Rose says no, but that it won't matter. Her dad, she tells him, will take him aside to say he'd have voted Obama for a third term. And indeed her folks (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) welcome Chris with open arms, even if at times they seem to be trying too hard.

"How long," asks dad, "has this been goin' on...this thaaaang."

Chris laughs that off, as well as later references to Jesse Owens and Tiger Woods. He figures dad's trying to make him feel comfortable, though it's having the opposite effect. Other guests at what turns out to be a big family gathering are also welcoming... though in a way even Rose has to concede is a little much. As when one woman accompanies a compliment not just with a sampling-the-merchandise-type squeeze of his biceps, but also a glance at his crotch, and the question for Rose, "So is it true? Is it better?"

Chris decides to let Rose deal with her, while he tries not to be paranoid about the fact that the family's oddly robotic maid and gardener, are the only black folks around. Well, not "the only." There's one guy, but when Chris introduces himself, this outwardly calm, studiedly preppy black guy starts screaming "Get out!"

Jordan Peele's made a career of subverting genre expectations to comic effect. Here, he's not going for laughs...or at least, not always going for laughs. But he clearly knows well the horror movie tropes he's undercutting — the one where, say, black characters always seem to be the first to die. Or where it's a pale white woman who slowly realizes something about her surroundings is terribly wrong.

As a writer and a remarkably accomplished first-time director, Peele layers other notions on top as he's inverting those — about servitude, about social privilege, about law enforcement and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner-style liberals.

Before long, Chris's paranoia starts to seem downright understated. Why is Rose's dad talking about "black mold" in the basement. What is it about that spoon stirring tea that feels so alarming. Should it bother us that the cleaning lady spends so much time smiling at her reflection in the mirror.

Get Out is more a very smart satire with scares, than a full-on horror movie. But if it makes you think while it's making you jump there's much to be said for that. The film's tone may be light, but its take on race feels true — which in this day and age, is kinda... scary.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.